Review: The White Ribbon

For two and half hours, there’s no room for your mind to escape the haunting mystery, and numbing anxiety, built by director Michael Haneke in The White Ribbon.

The winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the story takes place in a rural German village in 1913 — just before the First World War begins.

In the opening scene the town’s doctor suffers a serious fall off of his horse, caused by a trip wire that appears and vanishes without anyone’s knowledge. As the story unfolds, other strange and unexplained accidents and acts of malicious violence take place: a barn is set on fire, two boys in separate occasions are beaten and tortured, and a women falls to her death while working on the baron’s estate.

As life in the village turns to a pace closer to normalcy, Heneke reveals the sordid truth of certain villagers deemed to be respectable in the town. The suffering doctor, after having an affair that resulted in a son with Down syndrome that he neglects, has turned his affections towards his daughter. The pastor severely punishes his children, forcing his older son and daughter to wear a white ribbon as a reminder of purity, which should dictate their every step. And he shows more love and affection to his bird, than he ever does towards his children. The town’s schoolteacher, now an old man looking back at these events, narrates the stark black and white film. Through his lens, it becomes more and more clear that the town’s children are behind these cruel incidents. But with the proclamation of war, there’s no resolve at the end.

Heneke masterfully places poignant questions throughout the film that remain unanswered.

However, one can imagine that these children, living through the First World War, would become fully participating members during the Third Reich. Their sinister acts — if they are indeed guilty — only aid to what will happen later in history.

But Heneke places enough uncertainty that any explanation should be considered as viable. The children could be lashing out against the dark sins of the adults. Or the migrant Polish workers, hired by the baron, might have quietly, and unseen in the film, fought back against a town that ignored them. The beauty of this film will evolve with each subsequent viewing — this is by far Heneke’s finest.

The White Ribbon is in German with English subtitles.

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