Film review: The White Ribbon

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THERE'S a scene in The White Ribbon that pretty much sums up the relationship between its fted director Michael Haneke and the fawning fanbase of serious cinastes who greet each emotionally punishing moment of his films with a curious chin-stroking reverie.

Set in an unnamed German village in the months leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, the scene in question features the village's coolly sadistic doctor explaining to his put-upon mistress – who in her capacity as a midwife nursed his late wife and has since helped raise his children – why he no longer wants her to service his sexual needs. She's ugly, he tells her (post-coitus, no less); her very presence disgusts him and her breath makes him want to vomit.

She responds in tears, whimpering that even though she has suffered years of cruelty at his hands, she has always made a determined effort to love him (no mean feat considering she knows he's been molesting his daughter).

"Have you any pride?" he finally enquires. "You want to see how far you can go? My God, why don't you just give up?" Why indeed? Substitute Haneke for the doctor and us for the midwife and suddenly The White Ribbon seems more like a punitive test than a film, something devised by the austere Austrian auteur to see how meek his core audience of educated middle-class arthouse lovers actually is when confronted with his prescriptive, professorial approach to cinema.

With the film winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes earlier this year, and arriving here on a predictable wave of unquestioning "film of the year" critical plaudits, it would appear that the results of that test are already in: and yes, his audience is very meek indeed.

For this is a film that is almost parodic: in its severity, in the crushing tedium of its stark black-and-white compositions and in the obliqueness of its meaning. Haneke may have pulled back a little from the provocative shock tactics of Funny Games, The Piano Teacher and Hidden, but he's replaced them with long, patience-testing moments of boredom that are purposefully intimidating by virtue of the fact that they serve a story infused with the weight of serious history.

That story revolves around a series of disturbing, mysterious acts of cruelty that occur in a small, Lutheran, feudal-like village in northern Germany. The malice begins when the aforementioned doctor falls from his horse after someone rigs a tripwire between some trees.

Before long a woman is killed in what looks like a workplace accident. Then a local baron's cabbage crop is destroyed, a barn is burned down, and a boy with Down's syndrome is brutally assaulted. There's also a suicide. Some of these events appear to be related, some of them go unexplained and Haneke maintains the air of mystery by having much of the violence occur off-screen.

He also supplies multiple motives, implicating everyone, and further muddies proceedings by tipping us off to the fact that the film's narrator is somewhat unreliable. This is the local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel). He's recalling the events many years later, ensuring that we have to factor in the possibility that some of his memories may have been distorted, in addition to the fact that – as he confesses early in the film – some of the events were related to him second-hand. Nevertheless, he tells us ominously that what happened might explain what came later.

This is Haneke's way of tipping us off to the film's real purpose: exploring the roots of the Third Reich, and, more specifically, the mindset of the German population who would go on to be complicit in this monstrous stain on the 20th century.

None of these things is directly mentioned in the film, of course; the subject and themes are approached tangentially in allegorical form. As Haneke gradually places more emphasis on the children of the village, particularly the uniform way they start to respond to the severe oppression they're repeatedly subjected to at the hands of their parents, we're encouraged to infer that these are the very children who will grow up to become willing followers of the Nazi ideology.

It's a fascinating thesis, and yet Haneke is so uncharacteristically coy in presenting it, it almost feels as if it has been tacked on to provide some meaning to what would otherwise be 140 minutes of empty barbarity that regurgitates the sins-of-the-father theme more provocatively and effectively explored in Hidden.

It's not even a particularly original idea either, recalling in many ways Henri-George Clouzot's The Raven, his masterful and controversial 1943 whodunit about a French provincial town plagued by a poison-letter campaign that brings out the rot in its inhabitants. That film served as a potent insight into the mindset of Vichy France and it's hardly surprising that in The White Ribbon Haneke shares some traits with Clouzot, particularly his dispassionate, almost entomological approach to his characters.

The difference is that Clouzot also knew how to engage his audience, sucking them into his wonderfully cruel and petty scenarios as an equal. Haneke, on the other hand, relies on intimidating us into submission with his supposed intelligence. But his superiority and sneering contempt is unearned.

He's a cinematic bully, and The White Ribbon, much like his pointless US Funny Games remake before it, suggests he's not actually as smart as he clearly thinks he is.

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