The White Ribbon

Fionola Meredith is left in the dark at Queen's Film Theatre

'I don’t know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true,' says the narrator at the very beginning of this bleak and compelling film. That sense of uncertainty and mystery – of something dark and festering, lurking just below the surface – endures throughout, and is never entirely resolved.

Shot entirely in beautiful, bleak monochrome, The White Ribbon describes a series of disturbing and inexplicable events that take place in a northern German village in 1913. The village is ostensibly calm, a model of repression, Lutheran simplicity and honest toil, right down to the scrubbed doorsteps, well-tended fields and the women’s tightly plaited and bound hair. Each person has their allotted role and position in the rigidly stratified society: the midwife, the doctor, the Baron, the pastor, the schoolteacher.

But that well-regulated peace is shattered by a strange riding accident in which the local doctor is seriously wounded: someone has strung a wire between two silver birch trees directly across his usual route home, felling his horse. Soon after, a farmer’s wife falls to her death through rotten floorboards in a sawmill owned by the Baron. It is left deliberately unclear whether there is foul play involved here, or a connection between the two strange events.

A brief hiatus reassures the troubled villagers that order has been restored once more, but soon malice is on the prowl again – the Baron’s son is abducted and tortured, a barn is raised to the ground by fire in the night, and the stern pastor discovers his caged bird Peepsie (the affectionate name is a rare nod to tenderness in this world of grim austerity) carefully laid out on his desk as if for dissection, with a pair of scissors twisted through its heart.

The atrocities culminate in a second, even more terrible abduction – the midwife discovers that her mentally handicapped son Karli has been snatched: he is found in the woods with his eyes gouged and bloody.

Who is to blame? The answer is elusive, maddeningly oblique. We are deliberately kept it in the dark. The sense of partial disclosure always dominates, even in the camerawork. It’s as if the viewer, like the culprit, is consigned to sneak around, peer into doorways, lurk in hidden corners. Our view is often impaired: for instance, when the farmer’s dead wife is being laid out, we only see her legs lying on the bed; her face is hidden. And even the brightest, sunniest scenes – images of wide open fields, lush harvests – are rendered strange and remote in monochrome.

It gradually emerges that the children of the village – who are suspiciously blank-faced, watchful and blandly deferential to adults, always moving together in a pack – may be implicated in some way in the atrocities. In fact, the original subtitle of The White Ribbon - Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte, a German children’s story – hints as much. But why or how or when? These questions are left trailing, only partially answered if at all.

Occurring in the months leading up to the First World War, this seemingly meaningless series of vicious cruelties seems to take on a larger historical resonance as a possible precursor to the horrors of Nazism. Is this village 'blighted by malice, envy and brutality', as the Baron’s wife describes it, an immature vision of the hell unleashed by this generation of children after they have grown to adulthood? After all, at the outset the narrator tells us that what we are about to experience may help explain 'what came after'.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. This tense, unsettling film conceals as much as it reveals, refusing the comfort and closure of any easy answers.