Even Nazis were children once.
David Cronenberg once said to me that he admired the work of Austrian director Michael Haneke because it was so uncompromising in its tone and vision. And there's certainly something to be said about an artist who demands that an audience engage his work on his terms. It has given Haneke the room to deliver such masterfully memorable films as Cache and The Piano Teacher. Unfortunately, it has also encouraged him to wallow in his worst misanthropic impulses, as he twice did with the contemptible Funny Games. While The White Ribbon doesn't quite sink to those same depths of sadism, it does indulge in the kind of cinematic intellectualism that alienates viewers while endlessly feeding off its own ideas.
Shot in austere, soft-focus black-and-white that recalls the work of Carl Dreyer and invokes its eve of World War I period setting, Haneke trains his chilly gaze on Eichwald, a small, still-feudal village in northern Germany. It's here where we experience his black-hearted fable of vindictive divinity, the brutality of order and the inevitably awful consequences of everyday repression. Malevolence and misfortune quietly slip into this seemingly idyllic town, infecting every corner. The village doctor is badly injured after his horse is tripped up by a wire strung between poles, a cold-hearted pastor lashes his son's arms to the bed to keep him from masturbating, a poor woman falls through rotten floorboards to her death, the local baron's son is strung up and beaten, and on and on. Unexplained accidents, petty acts of revenge, secret sins and mysterious crimes breed a culture of low-level paranoia. And as you might expect, the children are affected in unexpected ways, roaming through their community like the possessed tots in Village of the Damned (a comparison I'm sure others will make). Cruelty begets cruelty, the director suggests, and malice is a virus that becomes amplified with each generation.
Yet despite Eichwald's corroding undercurrent of venality, the townsfolk maintain a veneer of unruffled piety and contentment. And amid this deceptive calm a surprisingly gentle courtship between the town's shy schoolteacher and a teenage nanny develops, unmolested by Haneke's nihilism. It's a rare act of humanity from this otherwise pedagogical filmmaker, who clearly wants to implicate us all as Nazis at heart.
The White Ribbon is a cinematic novel of sorts, carefully and seductively weaving together an elaborate tapestry of characters and situations, none of which will achieve resolution or catharsis. The performances are first-rate and the warning of emerging U.S. trends are all-too clear, but ultimately the film is a long-winded bore. Tom Long of The Detroit News commented at our screening that Haneke's film (which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and is favored to win the foreign-language Oscar) is exactly what Americans imagine when they talk about insufferably arty European cinema. And I think he's right. While there's nothing wrong with Haneke making a film that's unpleasantly intellectual and willfully obscure, it doesn't mean it's necessarily good. After all, the line between being an uncompromising artist and an alienating jerk is very thin.
Showing at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].