January 31, 2018

The White Ribbon (2009)
Grade: 77/100

Director: Michael Haneke
Stars: Christian Friedel, Burghart Klauβner, Rainer Bock

What it's about. A black and white drama set in rural Germany circa 1913 to 1914. Christian Friedel is the young school teacher whose students seem troubled, rebellious, or mysterious. Friedel has cast his eye on teenaged Leonie Benesch, a house servant of the wealthy and humorless Baron (Ulrich Tukur) and his sensitive wife Urisina Lardi.

Other key villagers include strict pastor Burghart Klauβner, dislikable doctor Rainer Bock, and Bock's abused common-law wife Susanne Lothar.

A series of heinous crimes rock the village. These lack suspects and motives, but there are victims. Friedel finally believes he has solved the mystery of the perpetrators, but his conclusion only elicits anger from Klauβner.

How others will see it. For those who believe an example of a great movie is Elf starring Will Ferrell, The White Ribbon is not for you. Entertainment is not what the present flick is about. It is certain to bore much of the mainstream audience. Here is a film focused on character instead of action, and has only one storyline of interest to the typical film fan; the romance between the 31-year-old school teacher and his 17-year-old love interest.

Nonetheless, the movie definitely has a fan base, given its high 60K user votes at imdb.com and its fairly high 7.8 user rating, consistent across all demographics. It is interesting that the decidedly European film draws an identical user rating from U.S. and non-U.S. viewers.

The White Ribbon was lauded on the festival circuit, and achieved a triple play, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at BAFTA, the Oscars, and the Golden Globes, winning at the latter. At Cannes, the movie won four awards including the Palme d'Or. The key name is director and sole screenwriter Michael Haneke, who is also credited with the story. Other critical successes by Haneke include Amour (2012) and Caché, neither of which I have seen.

How I felt about it. Although not quite a great film, The White Ribbon is a minor triumph of art over commerce. Despite its laundry list of award nominations, the film was a box office dud in the U.S., and probably overseas as well. It has likely made money by now, but mostly through video sales.

If it was made to make money, as if a Hollywood product, the story would have mutated into more conventional form. The school teacher character would become a dashing local law enforcement officer, his girlfriend would be a conventional beauty and play hard to get, the children would become more menacing, the doctor would be a blatantly evil figure and face inevitable conflict and comeuppance from the hero, etc.

Instead, we have romance light between Friedel and Benesch, unchecked bad behavior by the doctor and the village children, and a remarkable guilt trip inflicted by the pastor on his kids. It seems that only the baroness understands that the village is abnormal in a negative way, and perhaps even evil. She gets it, and leaves, something lost on the villagers cursed to spend unhappy lives there.