Rated R for some disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, 144 minutes
In German with English subtitles
Chilling, affecting "The White Ribbon" makes you wonder who's minding the children
The German drama "The White Ribbon" isn't necessarily a horror film per se, but it's unnerving, dark and filled with some stark imagery. The Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Film and nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award, it's a chilling, downbeat and heavy film about children who exact revenge on the adults in their own way. And if you've ever been in a store with an upset child, you know that everyone takes notice.
Strange events happen in a small village in the north of Germany during the years just before World War I, which seem to be ritual punishment. The abused and suppressed children of the villagers seem to be at the heart of this mystery. A doctor is severely injured when his horse trips over wire stretched out between two trees. A barn burns down. A handicapped son of a midwife is attacked and nearly blinded. The midwife later goes missing. Animals are wounded and crops are destroyed. A schoolteacher begins to suspect some of the village children are the cause, though that notions causes considerable discord among the adults.
Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke ("Cache," "Funny Games") has crafted a hypnotic, low-key and well-acted drama that's German version of "Bad Seed." Restrained and subtle, Haneke's delivers a fine film that's both message-heavy and at times heavy-handed. It's a bit of a stretch to tie the children's actions to the atrocities that played out in the first World War and is far more effective as a character study.
With that in mind, "The White Ribbon" isn't a huge mystery as to who the culprits are, and the film spends far more time examining the motives of the children. Are they just mean or was it all learned from their parents? Probably a bit of both, though his script wants you to believe the latter far more from the abusive adults - a baron, a pastor and a doctor, all who abuse people in their own way - laying the groundwork for the bad behavior of the children. All of which to say the regardless of who's responsible, the behavior is unacceptable.
As good as the story and acting are (the children - mostly young German and Austrian actors - are perfectly cast) the standout of "The White Ribbon" is the handsomely stark black-and-white cinematography from Christian Berger that's also Oscar-nominated. Originally shot in color and then changed in post-production, the stark imagery is only enhanced by the photography and serves as a metaphor for good and evil; Berger and director Haneke purposely create dark shadows and contrasting images that give the film an ominious feel.
"The White Ribbon" is a little too long and repetitive toward the end, working best when it's focused on the children, but it comes recommended as a message for adults with children to watch their actions and words, as they are certainly picked up, both in good and bad measure, by your young ones. My early prediction is that it will also likely win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards next month.