There is a subtle trick in this film that may not be readily apparent because we are accustomed as cinéastes to cosmic tricks, sleights-of-hand that cover everything hitherto seen and heard with a new coat. What is the point of such chicanery if it will result in no better understanding of the world it inhabits? Ah, but it does improve understanding, although what we learn constitutes but the first link on a very long and brutal chain.
The setting, as you may learn from any reliable summarist, is Northern Germany in the year 1913. Even superficial students of history will note that this may have been the last normal annum in Germany's existence until the reunification of its as yet uncleft halves almost eight decades later. As the film begins we do not necessarily know the date (a news item much later on will give it away), but it is obvious from the rusticity of our setting – the candlelight, the carriages, the fiefdom of the obligatorily procacious Baron (Ulrich Tukur) – that it takes place in a world long since forlorn. Our narrator is the former village teacher (Christian Friedel) who remains anonymous throughout thanks to German forms of address that allow him to be known simply as Herr Lehrer. His voiceover, however, has the cadence and irony of a much older man; we soon learn he is recollecting, perhaps with some fuzziness, the happenings of the past. Nevertheless, at the time of the "inexplicable events" our Teacher is thirty-one, soft-spoken, and charmingly awkward. He is also a lifelong bachelor although greatly enamored by the Baron's seventeen-year-old nanny Eva (Leonie Benesch), and indeed their scenes together are distinct in their tenderness. They will represent the last hope in a realm already given over to the vermin. And there is no greater rat than the village Doctor (Rainer Bock).
As the film opens the Doctor is nearly killed tumbling off his horse; unfortunately, he will make a full recovery. Our narrator dutifully announces that what tangled the animal's legs was a thin, invisible wire that no one had ever seen before or since. The Doctor's reappearance about halfway through the film confirms a handful of unsavory suspicions, especially concerning his miserable neighbor and understrapper Ms. Wagner (Susanne Lothar). Even superficial students of German literature know better than to trust a doctor and a sidekick called Wagner, who has long since tended to all the Doctor's personal and professional needs (even, it is implied, before the death in childbirth of the Doctor's wife five years back) while raising her own mentally handicapped son Karli; that she is primarily a midwife and so referenced in the credits should tell you all you need to know. The Doctor's near-fatal accident turns out, as it were, to be but the first in a series of calamitous occurrences: a farmer's wife falls through some rotted wood in a barn attic and perishes; Sigi, the son of the Baron is abducted and savagely mistreated; the farmer's son razes an entire cabbage patch on the Baron's estate to protest his overlord's negligence; soon thereafter, the selfsame barn is burnt to the ground; and perhaps most horrifyingly, Karli is brutalized to the point of having his vision endangered. We witness only the fate of the cabbages, and only their suffering will be avenged. We also know the perpetrator in the impalement of the pastor's (Burghart Klaußner) bird, yet a very bad conscience seems to have been the only punishment inflicted.
Which brings us to another point: we may associate German wickedness with Faust and more recently with the dozen ignominious years that finally persuaded Europeans to put aside their differences, but these are not artistic implications. Karli is blinded because he alone can see the truth of his parentage but cannot speak; Sigi is injured so that his mother can escape the effete Baron, go to Italy, and find a new man (a gossipy scene mistakenly whispers that it is the Baron who was in Italy); the Doctor is viciously dismounted for trotting between familiar trees (therein could one also detect some sexual symbolism, but that is for computerized minds to ponder); and the death of the farmer's wife is remarkable in exposing the personality of her husband. Yet these crimes are neither symbolic nor factitious, as crimes so often are in fiction; instead they are real but not quite solvable, as crimes so often are in reality. This jarring disconnect with fictional conventions may lead a certain type of viewer to proclaim triumphantly that only two short decades later – the proverbial generation – Germans and fascists would become synonymous and Europe would teeter over its blackest abyss. You would not be wrong in such an assertion – the white arm-band will distinctly recur to a fascist appurtenance – but such an interpretation limits the nuances of other sidelights, and perhaps we have already said enough.
The film's German title may be rendered as The White Ribbon: a German children's tale, and the children are a vital element, in no small part because there are so many of them that they become hard to distinguish as individuals. It is the pastor's children who are pinioned in a white ribbon arm-band to remind them of the virtues from which they have all too frequently drifted away, but the ribbons themselves rarely appear on camera. We are for many reasons invited to suspect the children of committing some if not all of the crimes, but scenes of cruelty are interspersed with touches of sweetness and innocence (the latter embodied by the pastor's youngest son). The magnificent scene in which the Doctor's son learns about the word "dead" is amazing in how logically and clearly the child proceeds from one assumption to another. Once he deduces everything he feels, quite rightly, betrayed, and we consider the first real time we as children understood that all of us would eventually have to die. But the film is not about children's mortality, nor even about their oppression in a German system that did not tolerate individualism from the young. Our village is not like other villages: most villages have their villagey ways, but this village has a tendency of being unpredictably cruel in a manner that hints at a malevolent air or curse, as if it were infiltrated with the very fumes of hell. Without giving more away, we should consider the following questions. What advantage is gained from having an old man tell the story of his youth? What advantage is derived from making the narrator a teacher who is not native to this village? What two minor details could not possibly have occurred? You may also think of how someone of some culture and intellectual curiosity would define the use of the past. I fear that last sentence might be a bit vague, but that would be in keeping with the initial effect of The White Ribbon, which upon review becomes painfully and shockingly clear like a pair of field glasses slowly capturing the face of the distant enemy. As one young character observes after traipsing over a very rickety and very dangerous bridge: "God must like me, since He did not kill me when I gave Him the chance." As if such chances were restricted by our own actions.