Say, who’s up for a stately foreign black-and-white film about misfortune and malevolence in a German village on the eve of the first World War? Do bear in mind that if anyone can deliver such tidings in an art-house-appropriate package, it’s the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, who has been known, and appreciated, and derided, as something of a dandified sadist. Haneke cultivates a kind of moral seriousness that can seem like rigidity, and a compositional rigor that can feel stifling. But his effort toward these ends, especially here, is masterful.
In fact, it doesn’t really seem like effort at all, which only makes “The White Ribbon” that much more unsettling. Haneke is like a mannerly, intelligent dinner guest who kindly points out the futility of reconciling history’s many-layered horrors with the warm-fuzzy memories you’ve been projecting onto those old family photographs hanging in the hall. His characters come into focus by way of thickening plot: A tripwire waylays the village doctor’s horse, sending him to the hospital; a tenant farmer’s wife falls to her death while at work for the local baron; the baron’s son gets beaten up and strung up in the barn; the mentally disabled son of the doctor’s mistress gets beaten and blinded in the woods. As these anonymously perpetrated terrors escalate, the Protestant pastor chaperones his children with dubious patriarchal dogmatism, literally tying them up to enforce their purity. And the sensitive schoolteacher, a softie by contrast to all the other men in town, wonders if the children are the problem.
It’s the teacher, as an older man, who narrates this unpleasant tale, and his steady avuncular voice almost brings comfort — at least we know he made it out alive. But now he’s compelled to reflect on “the strange events that occurred in our village,” which, he suggests, “may cast a new light on some of the goings-on in this country.”
In other words, what we have here is a cozy little cradle of fascism. As Haneke’s methodical accumulation of covert and corrosive depravity suggests, even the most outwardly orderly and peaceful human habitat can become a liability to the progress of civilization — a village of the mutually damning. This one is a seething crucible, in which one boy more or less dares God to strike him down, but won’t say what he’s done to deserve that, while others’ repeated assertions that “the world won’t collapse” seem increasingly unconvincing.
Haneke does register some moments of tenderness — particularly between the schoolteacher and his inamorata, a nanny who works for the baron — but certainly will not allow himself to become sentimental. How could he, in this suffocating atmosphere of aristocratic repression and its ominous impending consequences?
Maybe it is reassuring to write “The White Ribbon” off as merely a pretentious highbrow horror flick, but that dismissal fails to account for the extraordinary dialogue, the perfect casting, and the subtle enrichments of its shrewd performances — all of which is quite striking to behold through the clear eye of Christian Berger’s cinematography. It’s only because Haneke’s overall vision is so formally and thematically forceful, so unified, that its superbly crafted constituent elements sometimes go unnoticed.
This is a film of arresting, uncommon frankness, even as it refuses to explain much of anything. It is relentless, but not wallowing. Nor is it particularly searching, and that does count as a flaw. Haneke might very well be hiding behind his pet theme of unknowability here, and dwelling overmuch on the endemic brutality of provincialism. For its rarity on movie screens today, this pitiless assessment may at first seem refreshing — but only as much as so bitter a pill can be.