The White Ribbon Review

The Film

On the outbreak of war in 1939, the poet WH Auden sat in an American bar and wondered how the world had found itself on the brink. He considered whether a resurgent Germany driven by a megalomaniac was to blame and examined whether Hitler's origins were the root of the problem. The more he thought, the more he decided that what mankind had done to itself was the real problem because "Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return".
Michael Haneke's latest film is as deceptive and open ended as his previous works. This time Haneke tells a story that is ostensibly about the beginnings of National Socialism, but is more a universal fable of how evil develops. Set in a rural German village in 1913-4, his characters are even known primarily by titles rather than names - the Baron, the Teacher, the Pastor and the Doctor. The events that unfold lack clear causation other than in what the viewer puts together, and this makes the film even more like a moral tale than his usual work.

What is uncovered is a world where the pastoral idyll of a benevolent fiefdom is a lie that all the villagers must believe in. This fabrication starts to fail as soon as it is threatened and the respectable authority of the men in charge is revealed as a sham, a pretence to hide their use of power and the effects of their abuse. It is only through the inquisition of the Teacher that the terrible truth of the world these men have created becomes apparent. We see the forces of tradition, once challenged, reinforce their status through exploitation and particularly through the fear of retribution. And the viewer is left to consider that the result of what they see is the events of the thirties with perhaps many other parallels too. The White Ribbon of the children becomes not a symbol of innocence but a doctrine of intolerance and deadly purity as the logic of right through might reaches its ultimate development in the incidents that bedevil the village.
Shot in black and white with a formal elegance that reminded me of Dreyer's later films, The White Ribbon answers the doubts of those who believed Haneke had got lost in lecturing his audience. His artful exposition of the dialectics of this village and the nascent evil developing within it is layered, subtle and profoundly unsettling. Taking a larger canvas and adopting a historical perspective allows the director to pursue his themes of exploitation, power and the nature of violence with a level of success that he has rarely achieved before.

His handling of the actors is exemplary as usual, but particular note must be taken of the children in the cast who are superbly eerie hitting the right balance between the offspring of pillars of the community and a growing menace. With more space to work with the camera can dwell on landscapes, the story can pursue sub-plots, and the director can use the impact of the images he creates to mark this endeavour out as a truly mature, almost old fashioned piece of film-making.
The White Ribbon takes up where Auden left off and offers a disturbingly acute illustration of the poet's line I quoted above. Haneke has made another truly great film.

Technical Specs

Artificial Eye present the film on a BD50 disc which is region B locked and uses 40.9 GB of the capacity. The transfer takes up 31.2GB and is encoded using the AVC/MPEG 4 codec with a frame-rate of 23.98 per second. Presented at 1.85:1, the original aspect ratio, The White Ribbon looks quite beautiful in high definition with excellent contrast and deep blacks. Detail is magnificent in and out of light, there is no haloing and a gentle amount of grain. This is a magnificently shot film and this treatment does it justice.
The master audio track is the only audio option offered and it is rich and detailed with an excellent but naturalistic ambience. There is no special use of the LFE channel or particularly notable use of the rear speakers as this is a quite unfussy straightforward mix. The English subtitles are optional, very clear and with spotless grammar.

Special Features

Offered with the film are a number of pretty interesting extras featuring analysis of Haneke's work. First up is 1080I interview with the man himself who discusses how the film developed from an initially two part project and was edited down as a screenplay with help from the great Jean Claude Carriere. Haneke is at pains here, as elsewhere in the extras, to stress that this is a film about a universal subject rather than simply about the conditions that brought forward Naziism.

The making of documentary follows with some ropey footage of this film being received at Cannes before getting into the more usual territory about the project's genesis and production. Haneke talks about the opportunity to return to film in Germany after preferring his French experience of recent years, and we get to see him on set with the actors and hear their views on him also. He explains that he cast the children for their faces and also lets slip how he wanted to be a pastor as a young man.

A featurette looks at the film's win at the Cannes festival with the red carpet and press conferences. In the conferences, cast also contribute and we see the moment that Isabelle Huppert awarded him the Palme d'Or.

Most substantial here is "Portrait". Haneke's wife Suzy, Juliete Binoche, and Huppert all share their views of the man and his work. Haneke is quite chatty and open during this piece, talking about his melancholy, his habits as a child and his views on being called a "pessimist" - pessimists, to his mind, make films "that make people stupid". There are clips from most of his films and footage of him editing The White Ribbon. His brusque and direct way with actors is discussed, and the reasons for moving to France to work as well. This is a nice and warm piece that will prove illuminating for fans and strangers alike.

Finally, a full HD trailer completes the package.

Summary

A fine presentation of a great film.

Film
10 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
7 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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