(*homocinematically inclined)

Monday, March 1, 2010

Reel Thoughts: Village of the Damned

Historians point to many reasons why the German people allowed Hitler’s rise and permitted the Holocaust to occur. Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke gives his own profoundly disturbing reasons in his award-winning black and white feature, The White Ribbon, by not directly addressing the question at all.

The film, nominated for Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Cinematography, is set in 1913-14 in the village of Eichwald, Germany, where a series of seemingly random acts of violence threatens to topple the baronial and male hierarchy of the community. Told in flashback as the memories of the village’s schoolteacher (Ernst Jacobi as narrator, Christian Friedel on screen), The White Ribbon unfolds as a morality tale gone horribly wrong.

First, the local doctor is felled on his horse by a tripwire stretched across his garden entrance. Was he being punished for having a relationship with his midwife after the death of his wife, or was it for something darker and more disturbing? Then a farmer’s wife dies in an accident in the Baron’s sawmill. Soon, it is the children of Eichwald who become the targets of devastating attacks, beginning with the baron’s son. Are the other children somehow involved?

Haneke layers his film with deeper and more disturbing themes and situations, and it becomes apparent that the sins of the fathers (the doctor, the baron, his steward and the pastor) are being taken out upon their children, even as the pastor is meting out severe punishment to his own slightly creepy brood. He ties his eldest son’s arms to his bed when he fears the boy is masturbating and visits his harshest punishment onto his eldest daughter. The title of the film refers to white ribbons the pastor makes his children wear like scarlet letters, signifying the “purity” that eludes them.

The most disturbing scenes in The White Ribbon are not violence, but emotionally bruising scenes of the men in the village exerting their dominance over their women and children, most notably the doctor cruelly dismissing his lover, the midwife. Haneke seems to ask: Is it any wonder that this generation grew up to blindly follow Hitler and his perverse Pied Piper’s song?

The White Ribbon is a slow and methodical film that ends with many questions unanswered, but Haneke makes a compelling case that the misery, humiliation and hopelessness the people suffer in Eichwald made them eager for the deliverance that Hitler would promise a generation later.

UPDATE: The White Ribbon is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.


  1. great writeup. i loved this film, though it's a difficult watch. i'm still torn on whether it will win foreign film.

  2. You have written a great review here...

    my review was not as good certainly but we both loved the film

    The last couple of minutes of THE WHITE RIBBON, was spoilt for me,only because the new digital technology at Prestatyn's Scala Cinema, let everyone down by removing the subtitles from the screen!
    Having said all that, the audience generally worked the final conversation out for ourselves not that it gave any clear cut conclusion to one of the best films I have seen in the past few years.
    The White Ribbon is an unsettling,suspenseful and truly gripping ensemble piece set in a small isolated German village before the start of World War 1.
    The village suffers a series of seemingly unrelated but unnerving dramas over a period of a year. The village doctor is injured in a riding accident, a woman is killed in a sawmill and two children are tortured and beaten. At the same time other more "minor" mishaps befall other seemingly upright and respected families. The parson's pet bird is butchered, the Baron's son is bullied and a baby becomes ill in mysterious circumstances, and the narrator (who is crucially an outsider and the villager schoolmaster) by default tries to to work out what is indeed going on.

    Director Michael Haneke cranks up the sense of dread and malice slowly and deftly, especially when the onion skins of respectability are peeled away from the characters, revealing a community run by extreme discipline , punishment and in one awful case, sexual abuse. The Children of the village are key to this movie. as they roam around in the background in an ever present pack, yet, we are never fully sure that it is their abused personalities that are central to the strange events and heavy atmosphere.
    Everything in The White Ribbon is left open ended and unsettling, and as the villagers are finally led into the war, we the viewers are left with more questions about the approaching fascist threat, a decade or so away and we are left wondering about what role the children will play as they approach adulthood in the changing German world
    Key scenes linger long in the mind. A child frightened and alone searching for his sister in a dark house. A tearful teenage boy being lectured about the horrors of masturbation, and the dreadfully calm verbal abuse delivered to the doctor's mistress, all add up to unsettle and wrong foot the viewer time and time again.........and I must admit that it is a long, long time since a film opened up so many avenues for analysis and review after the last reel is over.
    I gave it a brilliant 9.5 out of 10 john

  3. "it lacks the intellectual and emotional nuance that would make this largely joyless world come to life."


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