Who’s In It: Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Burghart Klaußner, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Proxauf, Rainer Bock, Susanne Lothar
The Basics: It’s 1913 in a sleepy Northern German town, where strange happenings are plaguing a community of upstanding Protestant families. Who set a trap that nearly killed the town doctor? Who’s been kidnapping little boys and torturing them deep in the woods? And who cut the heads off the Baron’s cabbages? (Where kraut is king, that’s a big no-no.) Austrian director Michael Haneke doesn’t offer us the answers, but as his young narrator searches for the truth we find that the town’s grown-ups do more harm behind closed doors than their Bible-thumping public personas belie. No wonder the little ones grew up to be Nazis.
What’s The Deal: Don’t be fooled by its gorgeous pastoral setting, its slow pacing, and those seemingly wholesome villagers; The White Ribbon is a mystery-thriller, an origin story of sorts that seeks to understand why an entire generation of Germans turned to the Nazi regime with near-religious devotion a few decades later. It’s a multi-layered tale depicting systematic social resentment -- between the farmers and their feudal overlord, between a cruel doctor and his haggard lover, and between an austere minister and his children, who learn their father’s lessons by way of public humiliation and the strap. Something wicked was brewing in Germany, and Haneke’s greatest achievement isn’t that he conveys it in a deceptively bucolic way, but that we sympathize most with the children who torture, taunt, and possibly do worse to each other and most likely grew up to embrace the swastika.
Who’s Great: The adult cast is solid and features many Haneke regulars, but the child actors are particularly excellent considering the sophisticated material they’ve been given. Look in particular for the Pastor’s children: Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus), the eldest daughter who bristles under her father’s iron fist; Martin (Leonard Proxauf), the boy who tries in vain to resist his evil, hormonal urges; and Gustav (Thibault Serie), the angelic youngest son who offers his own pet bird as consolation when his father’s parakeet is brutally killed in a cruel act of rebellion.
Hooray For Ambiguous Endings: Nowadays folks want all the answers handed to them. But The White Ribbon works all the more because it never tells us who its culprit is, leaving it up to our imaginations. Better yet is the idea that there’s not just one criminal punishing the good people of Eichwald, but a host of disconnected malcontents committing small acts of rebellion within the confines of this repressive, patriarchal society.
Yes, It’s In Black and White: Haneke filmed in color but went monochrome in the editing room, creating a theme-appropriate black-and-white palette with evocative shades of gray. And it also has subtitles. If you’re the type of moviegoer who can’t be bothered to read words on the screen or who only watches movies that were made after Technicolor was invented, then you might have a difficult time with this one. But then, Transformers 2 is out on DVD if you’d like to watch a movie that doesn’t require too much thinking.