German director Michael Haneke may be the world's chilliest filmmaker since Stanley Kubrick, who relinquished the title along with his life. Haneke's latest movie, "The White Ribbon," already festooned with prizes from Cannes to the Golden Globes, shows little sign of a warming trend in his work; but it does offer some of the pleasures of genre storytelling — at least until the end, when the director lobs the tale back into our laps to make of it what we will (which doesn't require a lot of pondering).
The picture suggests a sardonic reworking of the 1960 alien-invasion classic, "Village of the Damned." It's set in a remote village in Northern Germany in 1913, on the eve of World War I. Eichwald is a place of near-feudal social arrangement and harsh Protestant rigor. The land is presided over by a baron whose extensive fields provide sustenance for the local peasants; they in turn are tended by a kindly village doctor, an earnest young schoolteacher and a minister of monumental Christian rectitude. A timeless placidity reigns over the deep structures of communal order.
Beneath the village's uneventful surface, though, some sinister force is at work. First the doctor encounters a booby trap that throws him from his horse and puts him in a nearby town hospital. A peasant woman falls to her death in the local sawmill. The baron's young son disappears and is later found bound and beaten. As these horrors accumulate, the villagers succumb to paranoia. Who among them could be responsible? Who can they blame? As the superficial tranquility of the village begins to crack, we see what festers beneath it. The minister ties white ribbons to his children to remind them of the virtues of innocence; when they stray from the path of purity, he brings out his cane (or, in the case of a son whom he suspects of masturbation, the bonds to tie his hands to his bed each night). Another upright citizen mounts incestuous assaults on his young daughter. Could the sudden outbreak of violent incidents be some sort of retribution? What do the smiling blond children know?
Haneke is never graphic in showing us the worst of the transgressions here, but the story drips an emotional degradation that's almost as harrowing. One scene in which a man berates his homely mistress for her lack of sexual appeal and her revolting smell is close to unbearable. And the air of constant threat and repression through which the village children move is suffocatingly claustrophobic. Haneke's longtime cinematographer, Christian Berger, has shot the film in striking black-and-white; but unlike Francis Ford Coppola's "Tetro," in which the picture's inky richness became its most notable element, this is the vintage monochrome of '30s cinema — it takes us back to another time, as does the knobby plainness of the well-cast actors. We're engrossed, and we await the story's resolution.
But anyone familiar with Haneke's work will know he has no interest in the simple pleasures of genre filmmaking. His trademark sadism extends from his characters to the audience itself. No closure is offered here, although in traditional terms the movie cries out for it. Haneke wants us to see how emotional suppression and an iron moralism helped summon forth the eventual horrors of the Nazi period. As deep thoughts go, this is underwhelming. And despite the movie's formal beauty and fine performances, it's just not enough.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Creation," also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we've got on "The White Ribbon."
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