Having won his place in the hearts of countless suburban multiplex-goers with such joyous spectacles as Weekend At Bernie's 4: Suffer The Consequences and the more recent Harry Potter & The Ceaseless Pain Of Eternal Damnation, funny-guy movie director Michael Haneke returns to regale us with this light-hearted Scooby-Doo period-piece mystery packed with youthful exuberance and high jinx.
All right, most of you will realise I’m swinging it a bit there. Haneke is not your go-to man for fluffy fare suitable for the casual cineaste. Quite the opposite. But as Pocket-lint is the home of the forward-thinking and the innovative, it seems only fair that we should make room for one of cinema’s most progressive film-makers, especially as only A Prophet stand between The White Ribbon and Oscar glory (at the time of writing), and his 2005 film Hidden is viewed by many as one the last decade’s finest works.
Those unfamiliar with Haneke need to know that they’re in for a taxing but compelling session. Set in an idyllic village in Germany ahead of the First World War, The White Ribbon recalls a string of suspicious and traumatic events that shattered the peace and upset the feudalist harmony: the doctor is badly injured after his horse is felled by a tripwire, a barn is set alight, a mill worker dies and children are abused.
At the centre of it all is a group of youngsters, unsettling little Aryan sods who seem to dispassionately view these events, no matter how shocking. Among these children are Martin and Klara, the offspring of the local pastor, a noble man who strives to ensure their purity and keep the community’s moral compass from going royally on the fritz.
Haneke seems to be setting up a logical path; find out what the kids are up to, set up a bit of retribution and then home for cocoa – but Haneke doesn’t like to play by Hollywood’s rules. Is it really the kids? Are the victims entirely blameless? Do we get to find out what’s going on? Not exactly. While much of mainstream fare seems to hang its narrative on traditional genre points, with a built-in need for payoff, Austrian director Haneke inverts those notions. While films conventionally use certain cues to move us, be it gore in a horror film, CGI, action scenes or the actor’s delivery of an emotive line, Haneke is able to operate on a plane that rejects all of those.
Instead he works on a truly subconscious level – he can locate our deep fears and discomfort and present them to us with the merest effort. Though narrated in retrospect by the village teacher, we aren’t given the benefit of his perspective, instead we’re placed in the middle of it, given no insight beyond that of the villagers. We may feel we suspect what’s going on, but ultimately that’s of zero help. What this means is that our way of experiencing the film is unique – instead of the film validating or disproving our hunches, we’re forced to take it as it comes, meaning we’re far more emotionally tied in.
Haneke knows this and plays his trump card scenes to maximum impact. A passing reference to incest is handled with such restraint and subtlety that its impact becomes devastating when insinuated onscreen. It’s all filmed with such crisp precision and measured build up that your focus isn’t allowed to stray from the point.
It’s already been well noted that this is an allegory for the rise of the Nazi party – the children stand for Germany’s dark future, with neither religion or the republican authority of the local baron able to stem the tide. What makes The White Ribbon so textured and complex is that there is no easy answer – everybody has to shoulder part of the blame, but there’s conversely the sense that it was also unstoppable.
Undeniably powerful and moving, The White Ribbon is a fascinating jigsaw that offers a rich, humanistic experience that works on multiple levels. Though set in the past, it gives us a timeless insight into the darkest parts of mankind, yet does so with a skill and vision that is hard to find fault with. That said, its appeal will be specific – its light touch may leave some a bit cold.
Starring: Christian Friedel, Burghart Klausner, Rainer Bock
Directed by: Michael Haneke
Extras: trailer, featurette