The White Ribbon

Released:  2009

Cast:  Christian Friedel, Ulrich Tukur, Josef Bierbichler

Oscar Nominations:  Best Foreign Language Film (Germany), Best Cinematography (Christian Berger)

SUMMARY:  The fictional town of Eichwald, Germany is enjoying an idyllic existence in the summer of 1913.  Things are serene:  the crops are growing well, the villagers are healthy, and the children are happy.  Then one day, the town doctor is riding his horse home when the horse hits a hidden trip wire.  The doctor is thrown from the horse and is gravely injured, requiring a hospital stay of several months.  However, when the police investigate they cannot find the wire (though there are marks in the tree where it was strung), nor can they find any witnesses who saw either the placement or removal of the wire.  Everybody in the small town quickly hears of the incident, and is set on edge.  Not long after this, a farmer’s wife falls through rotten floorboards in the local sawmill and dies.  These two incidents bring tension to the entire town, as no culprit is readily found.  Meanwhile, the local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) (who is also the film’s narrator) meets Eva, the new nanny for the local baron (Ulrich Tukur) (who also owns the land), and is smitten by her.  The local pastor comes into conflict with his own mischievous children, whom he forces to wear a white ribbon in order to remind them of purity and innocence.  After the incident with the doctor and the sawmill, things seem to settle down and go back to normal.  The harvest goes very well, and when it is completed the entire village has a celebration.  However, during the festival the son of the widowed farmer hacks up the baron’s cabbage field.  Later that night, the baron’s son is discovered to be missing.  Searching goes on all night, but the boy is not found until the next morning.  He is found in the sawmill, where he was tied up after being badly beaten.  At a town meeting, the baron calls for a stop to the incidents, but publicly clears the farmer and his family of any blame:  he knows that the son destroyed the cabbages, but has proof that the young man did not harm his son.

As this is going on, the pastor continues to have problems with his children, particularly his oldest son.  He confronts the boy, who admits to having touched himself inappropriately; after this, the boy’s hands are tied to his bed each night.  The schoolteacher has continued to see Eva, but when she is fired from her job following the incident with the baron’s son, she is forced to return home to a neighboring town.  The schoolteacher tries to visit her on weekends to continue their courtship.  Around Christmas, he is able to talk to her father about marriage.  The man agrees to a one-year engagement before allowing his daughter to marry.  The doctor (who is a widow with two children) eventually recovers enough to come home, where he quickly resumes his affair with his housekeeper.  Despite their longstanding affair, the doctor is cruel and offensive to the housekeeper.  One evening, his son also discovers the doctor in a seemingly inappropriate situation with his own daughter.  One evening, a barn of the baron’s burns down without explanation.  Following her son’s attack, the baron’s wife takes the children and leaves for some time; when she returns, she informs her husband that she is leaving him for another man.  One of the school students approaches the teacher and tells him about a dream she had, in which a local handicapped boy (who is the son of the doctor’s housekeeper) was attacked.  The teacher does not think anything of this until the boy actually is attacked and nearly blinded.  He tells the police about the dream, and they question the girl.  She insists that it was only a dream, but the police do not believe her, and insist that she must have overheard somebody making plans.  The local pastor’s problems with his children continue:  though he removed the white ribbons at the start of the new year (1914), he continued to be disappointed in their behavior.  On one occasion, he is so upset at her behavior that he embarrasses her in front of the entire confirmation class.  Some time later, the girl is shown in her father’s office, retrieving a scissors and then removing the pet bird from its cage.  When the pastor returns, the bird has been impaled and is lying on his desk.  Despite the vicious attack, the housekeeper’s son survives the attack.  One day the woman abruptly announces that he revealed the name of his attacker(s), who she believes are also responsible for the other crimes.  She borrows a bicycle to go to the police in town, but never returns.  Her son has also disappeared, and the doctor and his children have apparently left town.  The schoolteacher grows suspicious, and confronts the pastor.  He believes that the pastor’s children, along with other village children, either knew of or committed the various acts, based on their locations and behavior.  The pastor is enraged, and tells the teacher never to repeat the claims to anyone else.  Not long after this, Germany enters what will become World War I.  The teacher joins the military; when he is discharged he takes over his father’s tailor business, and never goes back to Eichwald.

MY TAKE:  As I have noted at least once before, I absolutely hate when films don’t have a conclusion, or it is left ambivalent.  I want things to be neatly wrapped up, preferably happily, but I don’t want to have to suppose about what happened.  I had high hopes for this film, especially after the housekeeper announced she knew who the culprit was.  The schoolteacher’s theory about the children seemed pretty plausible, as well.  And then, things abruptly stop.  The pastor threatens the teacher, he joins the military, and never goes back to Eichwald.  Seriously, what the hell.  All of these crazy (and sometimes deadly) events, and nobody ever figures out what happened (as far as we know).  It drove me crazy to watch it, so the people living through it have got to be even nuttier, right?  Maybe after fighting in the war it isn’t so important to you to know who the guilty party was, but I think it would just irritate me for the rest of my life.  The lack of an ending also left me wondering what the point of the film was.  Had the children been shown to be responsible, the film might have been commenting on the parenting styles of the villagers.  Had the incidents been a series of random events (that is, committed by different people), it would have suggested that there was a lot of darkness underneath the tranquil town vibe.  Even if it had been some supernatural crap, it would have been okay.  But none of this happened, so we know neither the culprit nor the motivation.  And that sucks, especially after two and a half hours.  Personally, my money is on the kids, especially the pastor’s kids.  The oldest one, the daughter who seems to have killed the bird, is harboring some major resentment against her father, and is just creepy.  She’s the ringleader of the children, and seems to be both smart and manipulative.  I really, really wanted to know.  Aside from being frustrating, the ending seems really abrupt, as if the writers were either tired of writing the screenplay and just quit, or couldn’t come up with an ending they really liked, so they copped out.

RATING:  Mediocre, with a terrible ending.

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