‘The White Ribbon’

Incest, cruelty, suicide: Yep, it's an art-house film


As a critic, there’s a very particular kind of mid-life crisis that creeps up on you: One day you wake up in a cold sweat and realize that despite having been inspired to write about cinema by such masters as Hitchcock, Truffaut, Scorsese, Kurosawa, Kubrick, et al., you now spend most of your time watching stuff by hollow-heads like Bay, Snyder and Bruckheimer.

It’s a grim moment, but an even worse one awaits down the line: That’s when you realize that art cinema has traveled so far up its own rear end, and exists so entirely in terms of knee-jerk opposition to Hollywood, that the trumpeted champions of the film-festival circuit are mostly emperors without clothes.

Lars von Trier? Empty provocation. Bruno Dumont? Painfully pretentious. Park Chan-wook? Ludicrous splatter-flick content with bits that don’t make sense, which presumably is the “art.” Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, Carlos Reygadas? Wake me when it’s over. But perhaps the most overrated of all is that Austrian master of rubbing your nose in it, Michael Haneke.

Haneke is a darling of the Cannes Film Festival, where he won the Grand Prix in 2001 with “The Piano Teacher,” while “Hidden” scored Best Director in 2005, and his latest, “The White Ribbon,” earned him the Palme d’Or last year. This is quite a track record, and rather amazing for a director of such resolutely depressing and pedantic films. (Von Trier is running a close second, though; with “Antichrist,” both he and Haneke have now covered the pressing and timely topic of genital mutilation.)

The White Ribbon
Director Michael Haneke
Run Time 145 minutes
Language German (subtitled in Japanese)

“The White Ribbon” is typical Haneke miserablism: Set in rural northern Germany in 1913-14, the film sets out to show that underneath the quaint, rustic idyll of village life lies a seething pit of jealousy, murder, cruelty, incest, suicide and intolerance. And, my, what a novel approach that is for an art-house director!

Shot in color but transferred to appropriately austere black and white, the film follows a wide range of characters through the seasonal rhythms of village life, and the troubling events that tear their community asunder. The local doctor (Rainer Bock) is severely injured when his horse is tripped up by a wire placed across the road. A peasant woman is killed in what looks like an accident at the baron’s (Ulrich Tukur) farmhouse, and her son (Sebastian Hulk) seethes with revenge. Later, the baron’s angelic son is kidnapped and tormented; a farm is destroyed in a mysterious conflagration; and eventually another child is murdered.

Suspicion reigns. The viewer’s eyes will inevitably focus on the village’s children, who are subject to brutal and humiliating discipline and indoctrination with a damnation and hellfire strand of Protestantism; the white ribbon of the film’s title is a mark of shame the local pastor (Burghart Klaussner) places on his eldest son and daughter when he suspects them of impure thoughts (i.e., the sin of Onan). The children are mostly cold-faced little sprats who have a habit of congregating in conspiratorial packs; could it be they who are meting out the sins of the parents on their sons?

Perhaps, but we’ll never know. Just as he did in “Hidden,” Haneke sets up a mystery for which he deliberately provides no explanation. Haneke has said, repeatedly: a) the audience should be free to draw their own conclusions, and b) the whodunit aspect isn’t important anyway. Yet in his desire to display his contempt for dramatic resolution, Haneke also shoots himself in the foot.

On the one hand, Haneke is insisting that we can never really know anything with certainty; yet on the other, he is insisting on certain historical truths, such as the feudalism of village life, the dogmatism of their religion and the horrors that would soon befall Germany.

After all, when these kids grew up, they would become — deep breath — Nazis! Critic after critic has fallen into line with this group-thinking, claiming “The White Ribbon” is about the birth of Nazism, but that’s kind of like saying “Dazed and Confused” was about the Iraq War. “The White Ribbon” in fact ends with the outbreak of World War I, which was about to traumatize German society far worse than paternal canings or bans on masturbation ever could.

One gets to the end of “The White Ribbon” and wonders what the point was of these grim two and a half hours. Yes, feudalism sucked, thank you, we know that, which is why it’s no longer with us in the postindustrial democracies. Sure, the forces of corporate plutocracy threaten to become just as oppressive in our age, but frankly you could learn more about how they shape our world from “Avatar” than from Haneke’s obtuse time capsule of a film.

Haneke resists the idea that films should have any allure, any pull or appeal; in his world, the viewer should gladly pay out hard-earned cash to sit there and be scolded for a couple hours. (See the atrocious “Funny Games.”) Which is not so say that all films must be glossy entertainments, but rather that a good filmmaker knows how to seduce and provoke, how to balance the pleasures of cinema with the provocation. Haneke has spoken of how he seeks to “rape” the viewer into “self-awareness.” Personally, I’ll look for a director who’s willing to start with a smooch.