Many critics have seen The White Ribbon as a mediation on Nazism, pointing out, for example, the similarity of the white ribbon worn by the pastor’s children as a symbol of wrongdoing to the yellow stars worn to identify Jews during the Third Reich (or even, as a symbol of purity, the armbands worn by the Nazis themselves). Such allusions are inescapable. But I was reminded more of recent studies of the witch crazes that scarred early modern Germany, with their mixture of arbitrary power, personal fiefdoms and sexual suspicion. Which makes the beautifully observed and tenderly performed romance between the village schoolteacher (the narrator of the film) and a young local woman all the more powerful.
Ultimately, The White Ribbon, like life, resists simple interpretation. And that is what makes it essential viewing for historians, whether they are interested in German history or not. For, like all history, it is bafflingly complex and never entirely knowable. The White Ribbon sits alongside Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975) and Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) as one of the greatest films ever made on the subject of history. It is essential viewing.
For further information on the 'Power of Women' in Germany during the Renaissance, read She-Devils, Harlots and Harridans in Northern Renaissance Prints , in which Julia Nurse shows how the demonic power of women was an important theme in the popular print of Germany in the 16th century.