This film, The White Ribbon, is something of a dark masterpiece, a black and white, slow moving episodic study of the roots of evil in a small, and we might say, quite ordinary German village just before the outbreak of World War One.
It weaves in and out of the suppression of kids, who look half defeated and cowed. We meet them one by one, some quite young, some in their late teens. They have the withdrawn, slightly fearful look of undergoing sustained violence at home. There are slaps, bedroom rope restraints, beatings, caneings. We hear cries of pain behind closed doors and are never quite sure of the precipitating infraction.
The father who administers the pain, in one early case, is, ironically, a pastor. In this case, the beatings are delayed after sentencing for a day to instill prolonged fear and guilt. During the day before whipping, the white ribbon on the sleeve foretells the punishment to come and broadcasts the guilt of the offender.
The episodes of quite ordinary evil are narrated in the soft voice of the young village school teacher, whose home town is nearby. He seems graciously free from any taint of evil. He is sympathetic with the kids and young adults, falls in love with an older teen, proposes marriage, and is told by the father that he must wait a year. He’s kind, sensitive, and wears glasses. There’s an inkling of pain in his voice as he narrates the cold world harboring pervasive variations of subtle and not so subtle evil.
One source of the film‘s genius is the counterpoint of the narrator-teacher’s soft voice and the cold, heartless cruelties narrated. It’s as if the well-distributed upsurges of minor and major inexplicable evil have a root deep in the soil of the village and that that root will always remain hidden.
The film opens with a village horseman returning to town and stripped from his galloping horse, garotted by an invisible wire. We see him thrown to the ground, his collarbone jolted up into his jaw, and see him carried off to the hospital to recover.
We never learn who strings the deadly wire, nor why this rider is targeted. The investigating policeman, in some incredulity, asks if there are witnesses to the trap-setting — if anyone has seen suspicious movement around the tree, or noticed the wire before it becomes set into near-deadly action. The investigating policeman can’t quite believe that nothing was seen before the horseman was stripped from his saddle.
In the subsequent course of the film the question of who set the trap — and why — is forgotten. It’s as if evil is mindless and arbitrary and no probing of its cause is possible or worthwhile.
Evil just IS! No one’s to blame!
It filters up in multiple forms to hurt and maim but it is in itself no more comprehensible or personal than the passing of night and day. It’s a virus in every household, attacking all ages of any class-status.
To the perplexed yet transfixed viewer, the impersonal evil is obvious everywhere.
Those afflicted suffer the surface consequences in ignorance of any deep-roots of the invasions. Only the narrator is somehow exempt — both from personal affliction and from wracked suffering with the pain of others (though he evinces wonder and pity at the pain the villagers endure).
Is evil just a deep fact of life — neither to be combated, nor understood, nor forgiven?
Is it as neutrally blameless and inevitable as walking or talking?
The cast of village characters is wide and varied and the virus of evil spares no gender, no age, no social class. Only the narrator seems largely exempt.
It would be a mistake to frame this narration as an attempt to “explain” the German plunge unto the evils of the First World War. We’re meant to ponder the hidden, then virulent virus of an evil capable of erupting at any time, any place. It’s not — if I hear this film correctly — a specifically German phenomenon accounting for German aggression. Its eruption, we might think, is possible any time, any place, among any peoples.
These portraits expose inexplicable, pervasive, and viral evil. The effort is, in my judgment, staggeringly successful.