Michael Haneke wants to disturb you — and every one of his films does this unquestionably. Without much visual flare and with a great economy of words, his works can fill you with immense dread and a lingering, muted sense that things are wrong under the surface of our daily lives. And if you don’t know Haneke already (from “Funny Games,” “The Piano Teacher,” “Cache” or “Code Unknown”), then you might not notice why “The White Ribbon,” his latest film and a well decorated one at that — Grand Prix at Cannes and Germany’s hope for the Foreign Language Oscar next month — sustains a different kind of suspense — an ominous wait for the film to be more than it is.
Set in a small, bleak village in pre-WWI Germany, this period piece immediately plunges into a foreboding social claustrophobia — but since this is Germany, everyone pretends to mind their own business, keeps up heightened airs of politeness and, aside from a harvest celebration, gathers solely in the austere silence of the church. Maybe if the hard-working people of the town gossiped more and did a healthy bit of snooping, the uncanny incidents that happened that year would have been less terrifying and wouldn’t have gotten out of hand.
A doctor’s daily horse ride home is sabotaged by a wire strung between two trees — a wire that happens to disappear the next day. Then, the mother of a large family dies after falling through rotten boards at her workplace. Seemingly an accident, the eldest son of the family decides it’s a matter of class injustice — and in a fit of rage slashes the Baron’s cabbages! The Baron employs over half of the people in this impoverished village, and his increased paranoia has consequences on everyone, especially after someone kidnaps and beats his little kid. But then, if it weren’t for these incidents, nothing else would fill the filmic space — already agonizingly slow. The scenes themselves are compelling, for either their poignancy — a little boy searching a dark house for his sister, or for their cruelty — a doctor’s verbal abuse of the humble woman who tries her hardest to meet his domestic, business and physical needs. The problem is that the transitions, a series of glimpses into the private and interpersonal, randomly move from space to space within the town, indoors and outdoors.
The strange events are not only ill-connected, but also ill-told — literally, by voice over. The town teacher is recalling his life before the war, and looking back, he admits he’s not really sure what to make of it. And while he’s an unreliable subjective narrator, we still join in his crush on the Baron’s new nanny, a meek love story that provides a sparse, though endearing narrative arc — one that may rightfully prove too weak to hold viewers’ attention. The seemingly random nature of the terror and the suspicious presence of goody-goody town children add to an increasing sense of dread while viewing, all to be wasted on a drifty ending.
The visual composition is notable, though arguably it doesn’t take a genius to make farm and prairie land look starkly gorgeous when the entire film is black and white. Other visuals of note are the people and the period: The casting is so plain Jane and the costume design aptly humble, if not plain ugly — no one but the rich baroness is beautiful. This, teamed with decent acting by this German lot, makes the film a realistic period piece — compensation, perhaps, for the loose story and lost tension. The cruelty is too random to be about fascism, not bitter enough to be about class and not creepy enough to be at the hands of demon children. When Haneke uses unexplained terror, it usually shows itself to be a real symptom of modern paradoxes, of structural violence built-in but under the radar. Perhaps “The White Ribbon” deserves the benefit of the doubt, but unlike Haneke’s best work, we’re not immersed and worried enough to doubt our values and our lifestyles — only our filmic experience.