Coming off its Palme d’Or win at Cannes and arriving as a culminating report from a director devoted to mercilessly and pedantically diagnosing the alienated ills of modern European society, The White Ribbon is Austrian taskmaster Michael Haneke’s capital-I Important Film, period setting, crisp black-and-white cinematography, (unreliable) voice-over narration, nearly three-hour run time and all. That it attempts to employ such tasteful trappings for Trojan horse-style subversion is admirable; that it dampens Haneke’s previously daring tactics in the service of a confused allegorical and historical critique is a bitter disappointment.
Should we expect anything more from a man who made his dumbest, most hypocritical movie twice? Last year’s Funny Games remake was an egregious embarrassment, but Code Unknown, Time of the Wolf and Caché remain some of the most disturbing and challenging imports to have received relatively wide recognition this decade, and for those films alone we should give Haneke a chance to aim for the fences. Set in a small rural German hamlet on the eve of World War I, The White Ribbon tracks the increasing tensions among its inhabitants as a series of uncredited acts of brutality exposes the village’s draconian religious discipline (administered by Burghart Klaussner’s perpetually frowning pastor), capitalist exploitation (represented by Ulrich Tukur’s cold baron), and infidelity and incest (practiced by Rainer Bock’s slimy doctor).
Haneke fosters an eerie invocation and dissection of pre-Weimar Protestant values through portentous atmosphere, detailed observation, funereal rhythms and, in a welcome surprise, genuine compassion (the schoolteacher’s [Christian Friedel] courting of a young nanny [Leonie Benesch] offers the most uncharacteristically warm moments of the bleak director’s entire career), until the film starts to resemble an arthouse Village of the Damned as the destructive pranks of a conspiratorial child population suspiciously mount. The masterfully oblique sins-of-the-father mystery Haneke used for Benny’s Video and Caché goes awry here: providing too much evidence of the children’s complicity, the free-floating threat deflates; leaving too much of the adults’ indiscretions flagrantly out in the open, questions of motivation are met with pat answers; in demonstrating how familial and societal institutions instill repression and evade responsibility, The White Ribbon also achieves a mere half-measure of provocation due to structural absences and narrative gaps made easily accessible.
The absence that casts the darkest cloud over the film, of course, is the historical cataclysm waiting just down the road. Once news of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination reaches town—and along with it talk of war—The White Ribbon turns into a Berlin Alexanderplatz-esque investigation of the origins of fascism (uncoincidentally, monochromatic winter montages recall the searing white palette of Fassbinder’s similarly Verfremdungseffekt-heavy 19th-century novel pastiche Effi Briest). Though subtle enough in suggesting the violent, vengeful conditions that eventually bolstered the Third Reich—the children will be of ripe adult age to vent their anger in goose-stepping and book burning—the film foreshadows Europe’s darkest hour as more of a pretense of import than a serious examination. Where most of his recent work has focused precisely (if humorlessly) on contemporary confusions resulting from unacknowledged traumas, with The White Ribbon Haneke retreats into the past to reinforce everything we already know about the legacy of authority but are afraid to admit to being tired of.
Opens December 30