Most of the films in my metaphorical 3-D category have nothing to do with the illusion of physical dimensionality. Instead, they are defined by multiple dimensions of meaning, interpretation, emotional response, etc. And my “D” doesn’t stand just for “dimensions.” It does double duty by also standing for “dark,” “disturbing” and “difficult.”
Haneke, who directed another of my 3-D darlings, 2005’s astonishing contemporary psychological thriller, “Caché,” moves back in time with “The White Ribbon.” He locates his story in an eerie small town in a barely pre-World War I Germany.
This film calls to mind almost immediately Wolf Rilla’s “Village of the Damned.” In that also black-and-white film from 1960, Teutonic children with blank faces turn out to be probable spawn of alien invaders who, after a mysterious blackout, seem to have impregnated many of the village’s women. While these perfect little specimens might, indeed, develop into some sort of super-alien/human hybrid capable of advancing civilization, they are children and, therefore, not in full control of their powers. They do bad things.
The creepy kids in “The White Ribbon” are the products not of alien impregnation but of a culture — best case — so sadistically harsh on children and — worst case — so abusive as to, in both cases, deform them and lead them to heinous acts. The step from family to culture is not a big one. This film is clearly an allegory. As the twigs are bent, so grow the trees, no matter whether nationalism, religion or some other force is doing the bending.
The slow pace of the film, created not just by a camera that seems barely to move but also by dialogue delivery, creates a sense of creeping doom and dread. (My heart beats faster with the realization we’ve added to more dimensions to my 3-D description.)
Set up as a tale told by the elderly schoolteacher who is a young man in the film, “The White Ribbon” resonates as fable or fairy tale. It feels like the kind of mysteriously scary story kind-of-mean parents or babysitters tell as bedtime stories. I remember one from an old woman babysitter about some giant’s big toe being cut off and planted as a potato. It scared the crap out of me every time she told it.
Unexplained accidents and unsolved crimes of violence occur in a place whose authoritarian fathers take advantage of their power to control the weak, often to truly disgusting ends. What they will do as they move into positions of power does not bode well for Germany or the world. World War I, for which these fathers must take responsibility, leads, of course, to World War II, the war of which these children are at the root. —Kathryn Jenson White