For one thing, the village is a rigid patriarchy.

THE WHITE RIBBON

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


 

            "The White Ribbon" is a film of sinister power. You won't shake its mood easily. This is a story that triggers questions of cruelty by humans, one to another, in a diabolical culture visited by adults on their children.

            We are dropped into a village in northern Germany shortly before World War I. The movie opens with the felling of a horse and rider by a trip wire that has been deliberately set. This accident will be followed by others - a barn fire, a brutal bullying of two innocent young boys, a saw mill death. Is it the pastor? The doctor? The mid-wife? The nanny? The schoolmaster? Or is it a vengeful youth or a raging parent? No need to ask. Director Michael Haneke has had the great good sense not to pose the accidents as a mystery to be solved; once we get past that need to know, we begin to wrestle the questions of human behavior. What is woven into the fabric of this town and its culture that is encouraging acceptance of brutality by all its people?

            For one thing, the village is a rigid patriarchy. Wives and mothers wear their hair in severe buns and speak only when they need to direct their children to follow the orders of their fathers. At the outset, when two children return home late to worried parents, the father announces their punishment: no dinner and ten strokes of the cane in front of their siblings. Each will wear a white ribbon indefinitely, a constant reminder of the innocence and purity they have violated. And so it continues throughout the village in a poisonous patriarchy where the mere presence of a man silences a room.

            Filmed in black and white, the stark contrasts capture the extremes of the village. No lightness or humor relieves the landscape or the people. The tools - pitchfork, pump, scythe, are the strong and simple tools of the land, but the emotions that have grown in this soil are malice, hate, envy, and revenge. This is a dark and heavy gloom.

            In our longing for relief, we reach for the well meaning schoolmaster and his fiancÚ, the nanny, but they lack the power to change either the village or our response to it. Over the whole grim community, God is repeatedly invoked as the unseen arbiter and power when men falter. And falter they do - the rage of the Baron when his son is tortured; the fury of the doctor when he turns on his mistress with a foul and brutal tirade.

            We no longer wonder who caused the accidents. We could understand any vengeance. But the nature of the vengeance is sufficiently cruel and purposeful that we are plagued by the big question: could this happen only in Germany, or is this yet again the power of evil over good, of cruelty to the vulnerable by false power. Could it happen here? Of course it could.

 


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