You may know Michael Haneke as the fiery, audience-disdaining provocateur of Funny Games – the subtitled original or the American shot-by-shot remake, no matter. And if so, you may understandably want to steer clear of further efforts by the filmmaker. After all, most sane people don't go to the movies to spend two hours getting yelled at by a crazy Austrian. Even Caché, which I actually thought was quite good, could feel awfully haughty -- like it was somehow above having a plot that's comprehensible on a literal level, without having to stretch for abstract explanations and metaphors.
The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, has been described – and, in some circles, condemned – as a "departure" for Haneke. That's true. Though the film's dogged austerity and formal precision will be familiar to cinephiles, The White Ribbon features an honest-to-goodness story, one that works on its own terms and as a typically cynical allegory. Armed with a plot, Haneke's talents and style prove richly rewarding. This is one of the year's best films: a tense, foreboding creeper with devastating insight into human nature and why ordinary people sometimes do (or acquiesce to) some very bad things.
The movie is set in a rural village in 1913 Germany, and the opening voiceover explains that while the story we're about to see may be imperfectly remembered by the aging narrator, it's mostly true, and should go some ways toward explaining "some things that happened in this country." Much of the village is entirely dependent on the local Baron and Baroness, who employ the locals as harvesters, house servants, wet nurses, and what have you. The villagers are frightened of the landowners in the way any replaceable wage slave is frightened of his boss. Their days pass in a sort of placid unhappiness, until some very strange events disturb their lives' languid rhythm.
First, the village doctor is gravely injured: someone strung a thin wire across the road near his home, causing his horse to trip, and the impact driving his collarbone into his neck. Then the Baron and Baroness' son is kidnapped and tortured in what appears to be an elaborate punishment – but for what? No one can figure it out. Meanwhile, we are introduced to various local denizens: the pastor, a fearsome authority figure who treats his children as a king would his subjects (they kiss his hand upon leaving the room); a harvester whose wife died in a sawmill accident; a midwife who carries on an affair with the doctor while trying to care for a retarded son; and the narrator, who we eventually learn was then the village's shy, reasonably well-adjusted schoolteacher.
The White Ribbon's themes are difficult to discuss without giving away some of its secrets, which I want to avoid. Suffice it to say that Haneke's pièce de résistance here is a connection between the way parents treat their children and the way leaders (specifically political ones) treat their charges. People behave the way they're taught to behave, and what goes around comes around. If your response to a kid's misbehavior is to cane him, what does he learn about the way to deal with people and problems? And if you stoke anger and prejudice in a group of people, those people, too, will lash out. I mean, what do you expect?
Haneke's central mystery – essentially a whodunit – works staggeringly well. He drops enough hints to make the answer (and there is an answer) guessable without quite telegraphing it. In the end, he reveals enough to satisfy while leaving certain details nicely ambiguous. It's all brilliantly calibrated, and Haneke's evident concern for the humdrum mechanics of plotting is almost touching. Dude's a storyteller.
The movie is shot in stunning black and white and lacks a musical score. It is slow-moving – sadly, it drew some walkouts among the usually reverent Telluride audience – but the pace is insinuating rather than tedious. For me, The White Ribbon was an utterly nerve-wracking, edge-of-my-seat experience – certain scenes that consisted of little more than, say, a measured conversation between father and son are, in context, unbelievably suspenseful. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, that level of sustained, mounting tension can be exhausting, and like all of Haneke's work, The White Ribbon can fairly be described as "difficult." The difference is that this time, the effort pays off.