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‘White Ribbon’ Takes a Village

"The White Ribbon" is not a popcorn-munching thrill ride. In fact, any amount of munching could disrupt director Michael Haneke's carefully crafted atmosphere of near-silent repression and tension.

So if you see it, grab a snack beforehand.

But the Cannes jury had it right in 2009 when it awarded the film the Palme d'Or, the highest award given at the prestigious festival. Expect some Oscar gold in the foreign-language category as well, especially after last Sunday's Golden Globe win for best foreign film.

Just understand that "The White Ribbon" is a true foreign-language art house film, designed to be absorbed and appreciated — not merely watched.

Let's get it out there right off the bat. "The White Ribbon" is German, subtitled, black and white, a period piece with no musical score, and, yes, two-and-a-half hours long. But instead of boring you to tears, Haneke has crafted a beautiful film that methodically, quietly and mysteriously draws you in and puts you on edge, without ever really understanding why.

The story is set in a strict Protestant village in pre-World War I Germany. It may look like a perfect postcard town, but strange occurrences are worrying the villagers. First, the town doctor is hurt in an act of sabotage. Then there's an attack on the wealthy baron's family. A farmer's wife dies in an accident. It doesn't help that everyone is acting just a little bit guilty, even the fresh-faced children.

Haneke is known for lengthy, composed shots that allow the action — and often nonaction — to unfold within the frame. And there's plenty of that here, along with a captivating silence that allows every footstep, door creak and clink of a teacup to be heard as prominently as everything else in the scene. With not one note of music to accompany the on-screen action, these mundane sounds of early 20th-century village life add to the film's eeriness, though sometimes used in slight boredom-inducing excess.

But most disturbing is the cruelty and hypocrisy of the townspeople, particularly those in positions of power. They deny every emotion and inflict their repression, anger and resentment on the children through punishments that can only be described as sadistic.

If there is truth in this portrayal of village life, it provides some context for understanding how these children became the generation that perpetrated — or at least condoned — Germany's atrocities in World War II.

The white ribbon, tied around the arms and ponytails of the town's troublesome boys and girls, symbolizes the innocence and purity of the soul. But it's not clear if anyone in this film — even the achingly precious children — deserves to wear one.

"The White Ribbon." Rated: R. Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes. 3.5 stars.

To find out more about Alison Gang and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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