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DVD Review: The White Ribbon

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Jul. 2 2010, Published 5:17 a.m. ET

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Last winter, The White Ribbon was the somber darling of the awards circuit. The German-made movie arrived to non-stop endorsements that included two Oscar nominations, three wins at Cannes and a Golden Globe among countless other statues and accolades. So what was all the fuss about?

With stark aesthetics and a gripping story, the film focuses on a string of mysterious and brutal accidents in a village just before World War I. First, the town doctor nearly dies after his horse trips on a wire. Soon after, a farmer’s wife croaks in the mill, and the little son of the local Donald Trump has a violent run-in. Dark secrets, meanwhile, are lurking in every crevice of this fun-free zone, from the humiliation of the pastor’s kids behind a thin veil of piety, to horrific abuse at the doctor’s house (nevermind that he saves a baby’s life). In this village, group dancing in circles is the most exciting activity of the entire year and pretty soon, it’s understandable why.

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Set against this depressing reality, the big question for us is who’s wreaking all the havoc? The bigger question for writer/director Michael Haneke, however, is what circumstances lead to oppressive power (read: World War II)? The White Ribbon suggests that childhoods wrecked with rules, repression and general joylessness are a good start, especially when reinforced by self-loathing, sourpuss adults.

While the DVD edition doesn’t include special features (it would have been nice, for example, to hear Haneke’s explanation about the thought-provoking ending), it doesn’t really need any. The director’s point about fascism's roots is startlingly clear, all the more chilling because we know what happens: Just as these oppressed, tow-headed kids are hitting adulthood, the second world war will break out and oppress the next generation. The causes and mechanics of the war have been debated for decades -- but The White Ribbon makes the pre-conditions undeniably clear.

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