MUCH has been written about this film already so it seems superfluous to reproduce all the facts here. Just a few comments, then, on things I noticed, from a personal point of view.
Firstly, it was captivating and charming, and brutal and disturbing, and thoroughly believable. It took a long time for the casting people to choose the children (who play a large part), and it is time well spent. The children are astonishingly good and seem very much like they belong to another time (the film is set just before World War 1 in Germany). I saw a photo of the children at Cannes in colour, and yes they look more modern, but also innocent and, to an extent, of another time, still.
The film reminded me of Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander- perhaps because of the emphasis on children, and the contrast with the adult world. I read today that the look of the film is inspired by Bergman/ Nykvist- the use of light in Bergman’s black & white films a big influence. This can be seen in shots in churches and involving the pastor, as in the Bergman film Winter Light.
There was one scene in particular that reminded me I was watching something special. The children of the puritanical pastor are walking morosely into the kitchen to receive their corporal punishment, and the enforcement of the wearing of the white ribbons. We see them only from behind and have a long shot of the closed door of the kitchen. I am in the cinema secretly hoping that the camera stays on this side of the door- that the whole scene is understated and we hear the cries of the poor children through the door, without having to unnecessarily see the awful actions. And this is what happened. The door remained shut, there was a long silence and the camera lingered on the door for quite some time. A comparison can be made here with the caning that Alexander receives from the Bishop in Fanny & Alexander- each of the ten brutal swishes is heard sharply, but we don't see the cane of Alexander, or the Bishop- we feel it in the horror on Fanny's face.
A lovely scene for its warm human interaction took place between the farmer’s son and his nanny. She is patiently answering the little boy’s questions about death, all done in a sensitive and subtle way which proves confusing for the boy. He wants to know if his nanny will die, if his father will die, if his mother has died, and whether or not he will die. His repeated questions are touching and reveal his limited understanding.
Towards the end of the film, the Baroness explains why she wants to leave her husband, the Baron. It is because she has found a better, more secure place for herself and her children elsewhere. It is all perfectly reasonable, but naturally not to him. She gives her reasons: the violence, the constant persecution, and so on- and it all may have been said by a Jewish woman to a friend on why she wants to get out of Germany in 1939.
The White Ribbon recreates the old world powerfully and stays with you a long time because the world it depicts seems so real and truthful. It depicts oppressed life in a small village, a village that is so crippled that it finds it cannot solve any of its enormous problems.