Austere, as rigid as frigid, guilt-ridden, and severe—it’s safe to say that The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner, runs the Nordic track of filmmaking. Set in 1913, in a North German village where blonds are outnumbered only by Lutherans, the movie studies fascism in embryo. Archduke Ferdinand has not yet been killed and Hitler’s still a starving artist, but the parochial structure of Imperial Germany is already wracked with decay. The town’s traditional healers—its pastor (Burghart Klaußner) and doctor (Rainer Bock)—are both carriers of the disease; they infect rather than cure. Haneke doesn’t tell the story of the Hitler Youth; he goes back to the youths that spawned that movement, and the repression that spawned it all.
Although the writer-director tells American Cinematographer that he wanted the movie to look “modern,” The White Ribbon is the sort of European art film we don’t see much anymore—the sort usually associated with auteurs like Bergman, Antonioni, Bresson, and Dreyer. (Modernist?) Christian Berger shot it in color, and then rendered it black-and-white in post. As a result, the exteriors have the lemony vibrance of spiked, acid-bleached hair, and dark nooks are unusually viscous—history swims in a blot of spilled ink. Haneke breaks a sweat maintaining the distanced objectivity, but undercuts it at every turn. In the opening frames, the narration (spoken by Ernst Jacobi, representing an aged version of the schoolteacher played by Christian Friedel) says that the forthcoming story may not be accurate. The village, Eichwald, is fictional, and the adults are referred to only by occupation. The compositions are typically framed by arches and doorways, as if to remind us that we’re outside them. More often than not, the camera is as mobile as a rusty shopping cart. One cannot even be sure when the narrator is speaking from; if the schoolteacher is alive today, he’d be 128. (Jacobi doesn’t sound a day over 120.)
The vagueness—the filmmakers’ insistence on artifice—helps to enliven this deadening world; Eichwald is practically a zombieland. But Haneke does a little flip on desolate Bergmania; his asceticism investigates its own source. It’s less a period piece than a fairy-tale exposé—a latent image of undercurrents that makes no bones about its fictiveness. The filmmakers stick their chilly thermometer up Deutschland’s Rhine-quarters, and their prognosis points to a case of Calvinist ethos. No wonder the feudal fabric is unraveling; or that brutal crimes form a backdrop for the story; and that nobody can figure out the culprit(s). The children are adopting the sins of the fathers because their fathers are so keen on original sin. Cold formalism is all that restrains the filmmakers’ fists from flying at the scrofulous doctor who molests his daughter or the hawk-eyed pastor who beats his children (and genuinely believes that inflicting punishment is more painful than receiving it). Even the tiniest release is withheld from these kids; they can’t talk back to their parents for fear of Father’s cane. They will inevitably grow into their parents. The hatred, repression, false piety, self-pity—they’ll be inadequately prepared to face the rancor that followed the First World War. No wonder they clump together—like a mob. With an average of nine (nein!) per household, these younglings are hard to tell apart. The girls’ black dresses haven’t changed since witch-hunting was in vogue; and, of the boys, only the baron’s son sticks out. He’s dressed like natty-jailbait Tadzio from Death in Venice, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Thomas Mann was working on a sexualized variant of Haneke’s theme back in 1911. When the nascent nobleman is, without warning, savaged by his poorer peers, their actions could be taken for a Marxist children’s crusade, but The White Ribbon is graciously unpolitical. These kids’ future—Germany’s 20th-century past—is the chill that runs down these filmmakers’ spines.
An imaginative cocktail sometimes benefits from intellectual ice cubes. The White Ribbon is glued together by Haneke’s cold intelligence, but his formal detachment may tear some heavy eyelids away from the screen. I yawned a few times during a matinée showing, and regretted not buying a be-cubed beverage of my own; this is, after all, an epic literally drained of color. Some have argued that the film is rigid, and would point to my yawning as evidence. There is some truth in their claim. But it’s only rigid on the surface; one can sense the pent-up emotions bubbling behind the actors’ restraint. There’s a parallel between the subject matter and Haneke’s control-freak method, but the dubiousness of its intentionality is engaging. Does his style “prove” his thesis? If so, does that expose his strength as an artist or weakness? Can a purely emotional thesis even be proven in any conventional sense? His vision is, at the very least, consistent. Pictorially, the cast is perfect—that is, it could be ripped from photos of my great-great-grandparents. But it’s the bastards who hold the screen. Some stray humane moments affected me—a dry smooch that the sweet, potato-faced pedagogue receives from his freckle-faced betrothed (Leonie Benesch), and a young ornithologist whose plaintive voice makes German seem soft on the tongue. Perhaps they only stick out because they’re the few warm undercurrents in a vast frozen sea. But there’s anger thawing the floe—a cultural self-reproach that rages against a mode of thinking that once defined “civilized” but proved to have dehumanizing results. This isn’t a sustained or lovable work; I’d rather spend a rainy afternoon intrigued by The Ghost Writer or arrested by Bad Lieutenant than with Haneke’s meditation on neonatal Nazism. But there’s something lurking beneath the longueurs—and it’s something to look out for beyond them.