Leave it to director Michael Haneke to expertly explore the dark and disturbing side of human behavior. Not as terrifying as “Happy Games” (German 1997, U.S. 2007), “The White Ribbon” scares on a much more subtle level as its audience is left to ponder: What happened and why?
The film is set in a rural farming village just prior to World War I. A former teacher recounts a series of inexplicable and violent events, which shattered the tightly knit community. A wire strung between two trees causes the town doctor to be thrown from his horse. A farmer’s wife dies after falling through rotten floorboards. The baron’s son is kidnapped, bound and lashed with a whip. A barn is set afire and a worker hangs himself — just for starters. Are these merely coincidental accidents or malevolent acts perpetrated by some evil force lurking within their confines?
The horror and perplexity felt by the villagers force them to ask the unthinkable. Their authoritarian and strictly religious society is rocked to its core knowing that someone among them is responsible for the heinous crimes. But as the story unfolds, we learn that almost anyone, including the children, are capable of such evil.
Haneke’s films often ask why bad things happen to good people. And, yet, can we be certain that these people are actually good? The dichotomy works well for this masterful director. The fear that exists in his work is the worst kind because it’s happening to ordinary people. They could very well be you or me.
Each frame in “The White Ribbon” is a work of art. The exquisite cinematography by the gifted Christian Berger is beyond stunning. Shot in monochromatic black and white, the dark subject matter seems emphasized by the lack of color. Ironically, all of the scenes were originally shot in color and then altered to black and white post-production.
“The White Ribbon” has already won the Golden Palm at Cannes last year, a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film this year and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. I’m fairly sure, given so many accolades, this is one of the must-see films for 2010.
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