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The White Ribbon
(Das weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte)
Director: Michael Haneke
Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Stars: Christian Friedel (The School Teacher), Ernst Jacobi (The School Teacher as an Old Man), Leonie Benesch (Eva), Ulrich Tukur (The Baron), Ursina Lardi (The Baroness), Fion Mutert (Sigi), Michael Kranz (The Tutor), Burghart Klaussner (The Pastor), Steffi Kühnert (The Pastor’s Wife), Maria-Victoria Dragus (Klara), Leonard Proxauf (Martin), Levin Henning (Adolf), Johanna Busse (Margarete), Thibault Sérié (Gustav), Josef Bierbichler (The Steward)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2009
Country: Austria / Germany / France / Italy
The White Ribbon Blu-Ray
The White Ribbon Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning The White Ribbon is a dense, novelistic character study that takes place in a small, rural village in the north of Germany in the year preceding World War I. Shot in the kind of controlled, austere black and white that brings to mind the films of Ingmar Bergman, Haneke’s film interweaves multiple characters and story arcs that are tied together by the underlying themes of paternalistic power, hypocrisy, and the cyclical nature of violence--all of which are familiar themes from Haneke’s oeuvre, but here take on an especially charged power via their setting in a provincial, bygone era that, as the film’s narrator tells us early on, may hold answers to the questions that plague us today.

Like Caché (2005), Haneke’s film about a sophisticated Parisian couple being tormented by mysterious surveillance videotapes of their house, The White Ribbon takes the ostensible form of a mystery, albeit one that Haneke has no real intention of ever solving. A perpetually unconventional filmmaker who nevertheless displays supreme command of the conventions of his medium, Haneke does not trade in simple pleasures or easy answers (he once said that it is harder for audiences to watch his films than it is for him to make them). As a result, he has often been dismissed as cold and distant and even moralistic and preachy, but I find his work utterly fascinating; far from clockwork oranges, his films are dense, emotionally charged, multilayered explorations of the darkest recesses of the human condition. He alternately evokes such art film maestros as Bergman, Antonioni, and Kubrick--not just their masterly formal style, but their fierce, guiding intelligence. Watching a Haneke film, it is impossible not to feel his presence as author, even as his stories engross and absorb us.

The White Ribbon is the first of Haneke’s films to use a narrator, which gives the film a particularly literary feel (many people have asked him what book he adapted). The narrator (Ernst Jacobi) is looking back from the distance of many decades, when he was a baby-faced 31-year-old schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) in a small German village, thus placing him at the center of events even though he is rarely more than a bystander and witness. Early on he admits that he is not a reliable narrator and that parts of the story may be incorrect, which fits directly with Haneke’s tendency to provide untrustworthly cinematic narratives (one is immediately reminded of Funny Games, when a character inexplicably is allowed to rewind a scene and play it again to his favor).

The crux of the story is that the village is being plagued by a series of strange, unexplained “accidents,” starting with the town doctor (Rainer Bock) breaking his collar bone when his horse is tripped by a wire strung across his garden. The village is lorded over economically by the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), whose farm employs virtually all of the villagers, and spiritually by the pastor (Burghart Klaussner), a strict, humorless man of little sensitivity whom we first meet berating his children for coming home late and sending them to bed without food. The parental figures in the film are products of an era of stern morality and unquestioned patriarchal authority, which finds its voice in various tenors that range from the explicitly violent (the pastor’s whipping his children), to the subtly manipulative (the father of the school teacher’s object of affection dictating their relationship), to the casually cruel (the doctor’s brutal emotional treatment of his lover), which has perhaps resulted in a generation of children who have absorbed and internalized this violence and are secretly returning it (the film’s German subtitle is “A German Children’s Story”). The fact that we never know for sure if the village children are up to no good makes the film all the more unsettling; Haneke understands the powerfully uncanny effect children can have, especially when moving in groups that immediately call to mind the lineage of terrible children in horror movies like Village of the Damned (1960).

And, in many ways, The White Ribbon could be described as a horror movie, with its slow-burn sense of dread and constant threat of violence; the only thing that differentiates it from a traditional horror film is its refusal to isolate and identify the monster. Rather, Haneke does something much more frightening in suggesting that monsters are everywhere, and thus there is no escaping them, much less fighting and defeating them. The violence inflicted throughout the film carries a heady charge, and the fact that almost all it takes place off-screen makes it no less unnerving; like Funny Games, it is the idea of the violence, not its explicit depiction, that gives the film its chill and sets us on edge. More so than any other contemporary filmmaker, Haneke knows how violence seeps into every recess of our lives, and he evokes it not to titillate, but to engage and challenge.

The White Ribbon Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • German DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • German/English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • The Making of The White Ribbon documentary
  • Michael Haneke: My Life documentary
  • Cannes Film Festival featurette
  • Interview with Michael Haneke
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorSony Pictures Home Entertainment
    SRP$38.99
    Release DateJune 29, 2010

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Watching The White Ribbon in its 1080p AVC-encoded transfer on this Blu-Ray was a true joy. The flawless high-definition image was a thing of true beauty that shows off the depth and richness of Christian Berger’s stunning black-and-white cinematography. The image is sharp and crystal clear, with fantastic detail that brings out the subtlest elements of the objects on screen, which is all the more impressive given the film’s overall lack of close-ups. Whites are bright and sharp, while black levels have are impressively deep and inky without losing even the most minute elements of shadow detail. Overall, this is a superb, reference-quality transfer that truly illustrates how good a high-def image can look. The loss 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack gives you two options: one version all in German and one with German dialogue and an English-language voice-over narration. Both are crystal clear, which is crucial given the vast amounts of silence in the film and the fact that there is no extradiegetic music (even the credits at the beginning and end play over total silence). Ambient and environmental sounds, some of which are effectively deployed in the surround speakers, come across as natural and crisp, and the dialogue is always clear and intelligible.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Sony has released The White Ribbon with a healthy set of supplements worthy of a Palme d’Or-winning film. There are two hefty documentaries included. The first, which runs almost 40 minutes, covers the making of the film itself and is filled primarily with candid footage of the production interspersed with interviews with Haneke, his wife, and most of the cast. Everyone has interesting things to say about the film and what they think it’s about, and the production footage gives us a good sense of what Haneke is like on-set (when a camera continually malfunctions during a crucial scene, he is quite impressive in keeping his cool despite being visibly frustrated). Haneke himself is covered in more detail in the 50-minute documentary Michael Haneke: My Life, which features extensive interviews with the director and many of actors with whom he has worked over the years, each of whom has unique insight into his artistry. There is also an 18-minute featurette about the film’s premiere and reception at the Cannes Film Festival, an additional 15-minute interview with Haneke, and the original theatrical trailer.

    Overall Rating: (4)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment


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