THE WHITE RIBBON
Review by Gordon Justesen
Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi, Michael Kranz,
Director: Michael Haneke
Audio: German DTS HD 5.1 (with English Subtitles)
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 144 Minutes
Release Date: June 29, 2010
“Forgive us, father.”
I can't recall the last time I found a single film, or work of art for that matter, to be both beautiful and unnerving at the same time. Those are the first adjectives to come to my mind when thinking of Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, one of this year's nominees for Best Foreign Language film. Although I would like to have seen it win the statue it deserved, it's winning of the Palme D'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival pretty much overshadows the Oscar loss, if you ask me.
No film has haunted me to such a great extent since There Will Be Blood, which is interesting to note seeing as my first viewing of Haneke's film mirrors my initial viewing of Paul Thomas Anderson's. In both cases, I saw the film on opening day in the nearest multiplex, which required me to drive an hour away from town. Both films carry a lengthy running time and both had me pinned to my seat until the end of the credits, which doesn't happen to me unless I've just experienced a true cinematic masterpiece, which both of these films are.
Haneke is a filmmaker who has never been afraid to push the viewer's buttons in one way or another. Cache, in addition to being an ode to Hitchcock, was perhaps the most intense voyeuristic experience I've ever had while watching a movie (and I mean that in a good way). And his shot-by-shot remake of Funny Games was an extremely brutal yet riveting commentary on audiences' thirst for violence in films, which some found to be ridiculously preachy but I found to be unique.
The White Ribbon is indeed a departure from those aforementioned films in that it's not an endurance test for the audience. It's a period piece, and one done so beautifully and with such incredible artistic merit. Haneke has photographed the film in glorious black and white, and I seriously believe that it's the best looking contemporary black and white picture I've ever seen, surpassing even that of Schindler's List Francis Ford Coppola's recent Tetro (if only by an inch or two).
The setting is a Protestant village in Northern Germany named Eichwald. The events are recalled through voiceover narration from the film's lead character, a schoolteacher (portrayed as a younger man by Christian Friedel). During his tenure in the township, he paid witness to a number of frequent and unusual “accidents”.
The first one recalled involves the town doctor who, while on horseback, trips over a piece of wire and is injured badly. Not too long after that, a farmer's wife dies at a sawmill by stepping on rotting wood that gave way underneath her feet. As time progresses, a barn is burned, a murdered child is discovered, and an act of animal cruelty will have all taken place.
Who could've possibly committed all these acts? We are led to believe that the culprits may be the children in the town's choir might be responsible. Even The Schoolteacher, by far the film's most sympathetic character, is convinced of this.
But just when we are ready to put a finger on a group of suspects, our eyes are opened to mistreatment of other residents of the village, thus indicating possible motive. A key scene in indicating this is when the town doctor, fresh from being completely healed from the injury at the start of the story, verbally abuses his wife (and quite brutally), after it is revealed that he has committed a strong act of infidelity. I remember sitting frozen in my seat during this lengthy scene in complete horror, as though I had just received some bad news...and trust me when I say that the list of films with sequences having such an effect on me is extremely small.
In order to discuss the point Haneke was making with this story would mean I would have to reveal how it ends, which I will certainly refrain from. Let's just say that, like so many great foreign films do, the conclusion isn't wrapped up neatly with a pretty bow like so many conventional studio films. What is made very clear by the film's final moments, and what is likely to strike the viewer the most, is that such horrific behavior will lead to the creation of a greater evil in during World War I, which has begun at the very moment this story ends.
The White Ribbon is that rare film that deserves to be labeled as a pure work of art. Michael Haneke had already caught my eye with the thrillers he had made beforehand, but this has elevated him to the status of a remarkably gifted and passionate storyteller, whose work I won't dare miss in the future. And though I need to do some serious catching up on the genre, this is in my honest opinion the greatest foreign film I've seen to date!
My friends, I can't stress this enough. Apart from a theatrical experience, the ONLY way this film must be viewed is on Blu-ray. This film, along with Tetro, illustrates that Black and White films are made for the HD viewing experience just as much as those in color. To watch this film on Blu-ray is to become completely swept up in the story's setting, and Sony has done such a fantastic job with both the look and detail of this picture that it's very much at the level of a Criterion release. I can't think of a better compliment to give a release. But if there's one set back, and I'm sure this is a problem with many foreign film releases, it's that the white subtitles are at times hard to read in the midst of such bright photography. You will have to squint your eyes on occasion. Aside from that, I can't say enough about how astonishing this Blu-ray presentation is. If you are a Black and White enthusiast, then you are in for the treat of a lifetime!
The DTS HD mix accompanies this foreign release extremely well. As expected, dialogue is the main attraction here and every bit of the German dialect is heard magnificently and is balanced terrifically well with the subtle background sounds to be heard in the village setting. The occasional pieces of music sung by the choir, especially the one that closes the film, are all heard in the utmost beautiful form possible. Easily one of the best sounding foreign films to ever grace a Blu-ray release.
All of the extras here are exclusive to this Blu-ray release, which is another reason you should only consider picking up this version. We get a nearly 40 minute documentary titled “Making of The White Ribbon”, in which Michael Haneke goes over in explicit detail about what went into creating the film, including the casting of the children which we learn consisted of 7000 hopefuls for various parts. Next up, and the best of the extras for my money, is “My Life”, which runs close to an hour and focuses mainly on Haneke himself. It features interviews from the many actors who have worked with him as well as an intimate conversation with the man himself. There's also an additional interview with Haneke, which clocks in at about 15 minutes, as well as footage from the Cannes Film Festival premiere, a Theatrical Trailer and Bonus Previews for additional Sony releases including A Prophet and The Secret in Their Eyes.
For me, Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon is required viewing for anyone who is the slightest bit passionate about film as well as Blu-ray enthusiasts. A work of visual beauty and remarkably potent storytelling, this is a film that will stay with you long after you see it. I've seen it twice already and I have yet to erase it from my mind.