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The White Ribbon
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Reviewed on 2010-02-27
Received[2.5]  out of 4 stars
GenreCrime / Drama / Mystery
This Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning foreign language film from Germany is written and directed by Michael Haneke (“Funny Games,” “Cache” and “The Piano Teacher”). A schoolteacher tells the story of strange events that happened on the eve of World War I in a small farming village in northern Germany.

This disturbing trip down memory lane intimates that the toxic evil seeds of Nazi Germany were planted in this generation of children who were abused and strictly disciplined by their parents. All the children are pure Aryan stock with predominantly light complexions and blond hair.

The movie spans 15 months, beginning in the summer of 1913 with a widowed doctor breaking his collarbone when thrown from his horse. This was not an accident, because a wire was strung between two trees by someone familiar with the doctor’s daily riding habits.

The doctor’s wife died in childbirth five years ago and left him responsible for raising two children. The midwife, a single woman of around 40, has become invaluable as a housekeeper and receptionist. She has a handicapped child.

A second and far more tragic incident occurs when the wife of a tenant farmer falls to her death through the rotten floorboards of a sawmill. Other strange, unexplained events include a whole field of cabbages on the baron’s land decapitated by a scythe, the baron’s son being kidnapped and tortured, a farmer hanging himself, a deliberate act of arson setting a barn on fire, the stabbing of a parakeet, the opening of a window exposing a newborn baby to the freezing temperature outside and the serious beating of the midwife’s bastard child.

The audience is immersed in this bygone world where everything seems so civilized on the surface. Immoral physical and emotional behavior runs rampant behind closed doors.

The schoolteacher also serves as the choir director at the Protestant church. He has fallen in love with the baron’s nanny. He takes a stab at playing amateur detective and attempts to expose the culprits of the various misdeeds. He has a sneaking suspicion that his pupils are hiding something.

The cold, aloof and sarcastic baron is the most powerful figure in this drama and the employer of half of the village. He is respected, but not popular. He treats the baroness like a doormat and she takes off for Italy with her son. She is sick and tired of the persecution, threats and perverse acts of revenge. She sees the village as being dominated by malice, envy, apathy and brutality.

The pastor is a strict disciplinarian who maintains a mood of sorrowful piety. He uses the cane to administer punishment to his two oldest children, Martin and Klara. The title of the movie comes from the ribbon tied around Martin’s upper left arm and in Klara’s hair to remind them of the purity of the soul and youthful innocence. It is also symbolically intended to ward off the sins of selfishness, envy, indecency, lying and sloth.

The story takes a painstakingly slow and methodical approach. There are too many characters to keep track of over the course of nearly 2˝ hours. The camera seems to linger over the same terrains. There are long stretches without any dialogue.

The movie was originally shot in color and then altered to black and white in post-production. The movie is badly in need of editing for American audiences who will quickly lose patience. The movie seems to drag on and never want to come to a conclusion.

The ambiguous ending leaves the crimes and the dark happenings unexplained. The movie will remind you of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” (2004) and Lars von Trier’s “Dogville” (2003).

The movie has been hailed by critics’ groups for its outstanding digital cinematography. It won best film, best director and best screenwriter at the European Film Awards. It also won the prestigious Palme d’ Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

The dialogue is in German with English subtitles. Now playing at the Rio and the Tivoli in Westport.

Review By:
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"


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