Writer and directed by Michael Haneke ('Funny Games', `The Piano Teacher'), `The White Ribbon' takes place in a small northern Germany village in the year before Austria-Hungary declare war on Serbia provoking World War I. Haneke's direction is magically bleak, shot in a rich black and white with an eerie and powerful feel. (Christian Berger is the cinematographer).
Narrated by the schoolteacher (as an older man recalling the story as in a fable) the film begins with an innocent look at the village people and its structure, notably the feared Baron who provides most of the work for the villagers, the omnipotent town doctor and the self-righteous town's pastor. All three come to represent a respected but feared presence from all, especially the children. A series of cruel and horrifically mean-spirited offenses occur over the year, beginning with the doctor and his horse as they catch a hidden wire while riding and are thrown to the ground. Speculation rises as the villagers try to unearth the culprit. More unthinkable and strange happenings occur, some involving children, sending the village into a sinister atmosphere of distrust and accusation. The pastor tries to remedy his children's behavior by forcing them to wear white ribbons on their arms - a false sign of purity and innocence. At the same time, the pastor is relentless in caning his children behind closed doors. That's one of the marvels of the film, in that, other than the initial horse tragedy, none of the atrocities are directly shown on screen. Both adults and children fall prey to some of these cruel and horrific events. Allegedly, adults towards children and children towards adults.
The cinematography is remarkable as high contrast gives the film a ghostly, foreboding feel and look. Haneke never comes straight forward with answers, but insinuates most of the events, giving the story an almost Hitchcockian feel. Shocking without being graphic, `The White Ribbon' shows the ugly underbelly of a small town that tries to keep its appearances while deteriorating inside. It feels like a true classic.