If I had my child to raise all over again,
I'd build self-esteem first, and the house later.
I'd finger-paint more, and point the finger less.
I would do less correcting and more connecting.
I'd take my eyes off my watch, and watch with my eyes.
I'd take more hikes and fly more kites.
I'd stop playing serious, and seriously play.
I would run through more fields and gaze at more stars.
I'd do more hugging and less tugging.
(Diane Loomans, from "If I Had My Child To Raise Over Again")
“White Ribbon” (2009) is a German “Children’s film” directed by Michael Haneke. It is a story about the rise of any kind of terrorism. There is a clear biographical through line between the of the film and the rise of the Nazi party during World War II. This is a about the development of Evil. But it is also a personal, relatable story about a community in crisis. However one reads it, the film is a powerful, searing work about the darkness kept hidden not behind just closed doors but sometimes dangerously within the souls of community leaders — religious, medial, political, and educational.
The stroy takes place in Eichwald, Germany in 1913 and 1914. It is a close-knit community led by one doctor, one teacher, one pastor, and one baron who dictate what is right and wrong, overseeing and controlling much of the action in their vicinity. The pastor is rigid; the teacher (who narrates the story as a memory) is kind; the baron is tough on his employees; the doctor is outwardly gentle but hides remarkable evil.
The story opens with an attack on the doctor and his horse and, shortly thereafter, a female worker of the baron dies in his sawmill and the worker’s son seeks revenge, highlighting clear social issues that threaten to tear apart the community. But the outward class conflict of “The White Ribbon” hides something much more sinister. The mystery deepends when the baron’s son is abducted and tortured. Then there is a fire.
Haneke traces the spoor of guilt back to childhood. The White Ribbon, however, is not about a single buried trauma, but a whole culture of repression in which the powerless – children, mostly, but also a disenfranchised working class – are subjected to a system of barbarous punishments. At the centre of the film is the village's fiercely disciplinarian pastor, played by Burghart Klaussner. The pastor insists on a family tradition of the "white ribbon" which his wife dutifully prepares from her sewing box. The pastor disciplines his two oldest children with notable severity, forcing them to wear a badge of humiliation (the white ribbon) to remind each of their lost purity. He whips his oldest boy at the dinner table, and instructs that his hands be tied at bedtime to prevent him indulging any unnatural urges. In one upsettingly horrible edit the film for a moment suggests that the pastor is sexually abusing the boy, but the grunting figures are revealed to be the doctor and his long suffering midwife. Haneke won't let us off that easily, though, and later raises the spectre of incest in a different household.
When the schoolmaster is driving his fiancée home he turns off the road, suggesting a quiet spot where they can "picnic". She demurs, understanding the euphemism, and asks him to resume their journey. He gently confesses that he had no ulterior motive, but he understands her fear ("please") and yields to it.
In the second, the pastor, barely deserving of anything good, is visited by his youngest son, who offers him the pet bird he has nursed back to health. It will replace his father's own dead bird – also mischievously destroyed – and "cheer him up". The pastor's face seems about to crumple under the force of such compassion. So Haneke is not holding up a whole generation to opprobrium; he is never so unambiguous. The White Ribbon remains open-ended, and thus a little frustrating. We have no conclusive proof of the evildoers' identities, however strong are suspicions may be. This cool-headed, watchful film simply invites us to observe, to imagine, to make up our own minds. That's another way of saying it treats its audience as grown-ups.
(Edited from different review articles on the film)