Ever wonder about the ancestors of the murderous jocks in Funny Games? In the Palme d’Or-winning The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke time travels to rural Germany on the cusp of WWI to find the answer—or, rather, to make the audience’s collective skin crawl at the question. The setting is the small village of Eichwald, a bucolic commune that, presided over by such stern patriarchs as the landowning baron (Ulrich Tukur) and the pastor (Burghart Klaussner), is presented as a 19th-century holdover inexorably giving way to the darkening modernity of new times. Not that Haneke displays much nostalgia for the town’s traditions: Life here is dismal, oppressive, and rigidly hierarchical, erected on puritanical morals and reinforced with ritualized punishment. Hitler—the “bitter flower of German irrationalism,” as Hans-Jürgen Syberberg once put it—may still lurk beyond the horizon, but the seeds of fascism have already been sown in society’s unquestioning adherence to power structures.
Haneke hints at horrors to come in the series of disturbing, mysteriously connected events that hits the town, from the horse-tripping trap that nearly kills the local doctor (Rainer Bock) to the burning of a family barn. Malice oozes beneath immaculate surfaces, dread fills the air. Parents mete out brutal whippings, kids are hectored, molested, and mutilated: The town schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) may narrate the happenings, but it’s the young generation that both bears silent witness to and is contaminated by the free-floating distrust and anxiety. (Not for nothing is the film subtitled “A German Children’s Story.”)
Though it opens with an abrupt bit of animal abuse and includes at least one interlude of risible faux-Strindbergisms (“My God, why won’t you just die,” the doctor sneers at his long-suffering mistress), the film is thankfully light on the Austrian auteur’s patented high-handed shocks. Instead, Haneke unfurls a tapestry of barren relationships and deforming conformity in which the greatest jolt comes not from a director arrogantly sucker-punching his audience, but from the dawning realization that the strange crimes aren’t so much polluting the village as merely crystallizing the hypocritical rot that was always there.
Something of a distant Teutonic cousin to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s caustic Le Corbeau, White Ribbon amply displays Haneke’s filmmaking mastery, with dozens of characters introduced and explored in a meticulous, detail-rich flow. (Shot by Christian Berger in monochromatic tones, it at times has some of the scrubbed chiaroscuro of Ingmar Bergman’s early films.) In its not-a-hair-out-of-place rigidity, however, it’s a mastery that often feels deadening and threatens to turn its sins-of-the-father inquiry into a static, academic thesis on the Children of the Corn series.
What saves the film from becoming a coldly analytical ant farm is Haneke’s respect for each character, the way he refuses to turn their pain into items on a diagram. It’s there in the way the pastor’s young son offers to replace his father’s beloved slain canary with his own pet bird, or in the shy courtship between the teacher and a nanny (Leonie Benesch), a tentative bond that offers a convincing portrayal of positive emotion in the filmmaker’s dour worldview. Nobody will ever mistake Haneke for Jean Renoir, but his grudging humanism here suggests for the first time a flicker of warmth behind cinema’s reigning Ice King.