The White Ribbon (Review)

Sony, 2009, Rated R

Jun 30, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke recently admitted his admiration for the work of the late American director Robert Altman: “Not all his films are great, but some are truly amazing.” While I wholeheartedly agree with that assessment, I can’t help but find his admiration ironic: Haneke’s rigorous approach to filmmaking is the exact opposite of Altman’s aesthetic, which reveled in the spontaneous “happy accidents” that made his movies so unique.

Proof of the pair’s glaring stylistic dichotomy is again on display in Haneke’s latest, yet another rigorously crafted look at the evil that men (and women and children) do. Set in a small, pre-World War I German-Protestant village, The White Ribbon’s narrative is conveyed via the voice over of a now-aged former village schoolteacher who admits that the “strange events” about to unfurl might not reveal “the truth in every detail,” but that they “may cast a new light on some of the goings-on in this country.” In other words, what you are about to witness might be the seeds that led Germany to fall under the spell of ideological delusion, resulting in the fascist-driven turmoil that would plague Europe for the next 30 years.

Yet Haneke, ever the mind-fuck subversive, isn’t interested in delivering a straightforward sermon. The master manipulator instead unravels this damned village’s moral and psychological disintegration with unyielding restraint — only the first of the mysterious “events” actually appears on screen.

Haneke keeps both viewers and the story’s various pawns in a perpetual state of uncertainty, often sacrificing dramatic tension in the process. The ominous, chilly tone is accentuated by the use of vivid black-and-white cinematography, classically framed compositions and deliberate pacing. And while the unrecognizable cast does its best to inject life into the oblique proceedings, The White Ribbon is an oddly bloodless affair, one that only occasionally transcends Haneke’s ample formal gifts to deliver genuine emotional involvement.

The Blu-ray version includes a number of interesting extras, including a 39-minute making-of documentary that addresses Haneke’s thematic intentions (most centrally to expose the dangers of rigid ideology) and meticulous working methods (he adheres closely to the script), and a 50-minute biopic of sorts called Michael Haneke: My Life, which reveals little that can’t be gleaned from watching the man’s movies. Grade: B