The White Ribbon won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the 2010 Golden Globe for best foreign film and seemed to have a lock on winning the Academy Award as well, but was surprisingly bested by The Secret in their Eyes. And now, having seen both, I understand why. The Golden Globes are voted on by a small group of foreign journalists, while the Academy Awards are decided by mostly American viewers. The sensibilities could not be more different.
The White Ribbon reminds me of Ingmar Bergman; the stark visuals create a sense of foreboding and you are sucked into a bleak world filled with dark mysteries. The entire film takes place in a pre-World War One German village lorded over by The Baron on his estate. In the first scene, the Village Doctor falls and breaks his collarbone because “someone” strung wire across the road to trip his horse. And from this opening scene until the end, bad things happen at every turn. Children are tortured. People die in accidents or suicides. Barns burn. Relationships fall apart and people are generally brutal to one another. And it is all shot absolutely gorgeously in black and white.
The central mystery is who hurt the children and the doctor. The multiple villagers’ stories are narrated by The School Teacher. It is his view of these dark happenings that is told many years later looking back on it all. The one light storyline in the film is his courtship of a young woman who is the nanny to the Baron’s twins.
Much was written about this film depicting the society that created fascism and how the children of the film would be ripe to turn on the Jews because of being raised in this strict Protestant mode. And while that may be true, you are left at the end with more questions than answers. The film is more a series of scenes than a full story. Call me old fashioned for wanting a screenplay to have a beginning, middle and end. Perhaps the ending is implied – the fascism that followed. But at the end of this 145-minute film, I was expecting to find out who done it, or why it was done or something more than was delivered.
The White Ribbon is a film you definitely need to be willing to work at seeing. Be prepared for a disconcerting, depressing two and a half hours and a pretty unsatisfying ending. As arty as I am, and I do love a good Bergman film, I think this film is highly over-rated.
(Viewing note: if you are semi-blind like me, make sure you have a BIG screen to watch the DVD because for some reason the subtitles on this one are really, really small.)