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Monday, June 24, 2024
The independent student publication of The University at Buffalo, since 1950

The black and White Ribbon

Living in a black-and-white world is a terrible burden, especially for those who know it is black and white.
The German film The White Ribbon, winner of the 2009 Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, is a bleak moral painting set in a provincial German village on the eve of World War I.
Filmed in black and white, the movie examines a broad array of characters who harbor suspicions and secrets toward one other. The narrator claims that the story could possibly explain the horrific events in the following 30 years of Germany's history.
On a broader level, it shows what happens when repression and fear take over a human heart and what a group of afflicted people can do to each other.
The movie follows an unnamed schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) in the small village of Eichwald. He narrates the movie as a much older man, describing, or at least postulating, events in the form of distant memories.
The narrator becomes involved in a 15-month courtship with Eva (Leonie Benesch, Beautiful Bitch), a nanny for the local baron. Over the course of their relationship – the only romantic relationship that exists in the movie – strange and violent things happen.
First, the local doctor (Rainer Bock, Inglourious Basterds) is injured when he trips over a hidden wire while horseback riding. A farmer's wife dies falling through rotten floorboards. The baron's son is found beaten and a midwife's mentally challenged son is found tortured.
The townspeople don't know what to make of this. As panic ensues, the movie exposes some of the dark secrets of prominent citizens. The pastor (Burghart Klaussner, Alter und Schönheit), a stoic puritanical type, administers brutal punishments to his children. The doctor has an affair with the midwife and sexually abuses his daughter. The baron's wife abandons the village and returns months later, absolutely furious. The schoolteacher develops his suspicions, nearly coming to the point of acting on them.
The White Ribbon has the mood of an Ingmar Bergman movie: bleak, cold, obsessive and unsmiling. There is not a single shot in the movie that doesn't contain elements of horror. While it is not terribly graphic, it shows events with such honesty that it makes one shudder.
According to the esteemed writer and director Michael Haneke (Funny Games), the movie is about 'the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature.' His claim is not overtly obvious – at least to American viewers. Our view of terrorism is that of blown-up buildings, hijacked planes, suicide bombers, and AK-47s.
Yet the film displays that there is a more subtle form of terrorism that is not unique to any particular race or nation – the terror of the heart. When the pastor forces two of his children to wear a white ribbon to symbolize the purity they have broken or when the doctor tells his mistress that he wishes her dead, the spirit crumbles and the holocaust of decency and charity begins.
It is the children in the movie who suffer the most. All of the strange events either happen to children or directly affect them. Looking at their austere faces is enough to make the viewer understand where they come from, a belligerent drilling of purity in an environment in which sin is hidden or beaten out of them.
The schoolteacher, one of the only truly decent people in the town, sympathizes with the children. But he also suspects some of them, especially the pastor's daughter Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus, Du Bist Nicht Allein), whose behavior is the most brash of them all.
Ultimately, though, the movie attempts no explanation of what happened. When the war starts, the denizens forget the crimes and move on. Even the schoolteacher seems more or less detached from what happened, leaving the town for good.
The White Ribbon is an excellent examination of moral terror. Many movies try to depict the human condition, but few achieve this movie's vision and narrative scope. Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, the movie is long and depressing.
But then again, so is life.

E-mail: arts@ubspectrum.com


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