Full disclosure: I'm an ardent fan of the films of Austrian director Michael Haneke ("Funny Games," "Cache," "The Hour of the Wolf," "The Piano Teacher"), which sometimes get rapped for being a little too obsessed with the human capacity for cruelty and the cyclical nature of evil. Haneke is a commanding and provocative filmmaker, and to say that his world view is bleak does not do his vision justice: Even Lars Von Trier comes off as an optimist by comparison.
But “The White Ribbon,” Haneke’s latest and much-acclaimed new movie, and winner of the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is – how to put this politely? – an artsy bore. Haneke’s ambitions are admirable: Using the increasingly strange events in a small German village shortly before the start of World War I to illustrate how cruelty, violence and sadism can spread like a virus and how the fascism that would become prevalent in the 1930s sprang from seemingly peaceful, family-oriented people.
But Haneke has dramatized his intellectual conceits in an uninvolving, snail-paced movie that illustrates its themes in an obvious, almost banal manner. Shot in softfocus black-and-white intended to make the film look as if it had been made in the era it unfolds, “The White Ribbon” even resorts the voiceover narrator to make sure no one misses the point.
There are no obvious villains in “The White Ribbon”: The malevolence that permeates the seemingly idyllic town seems to afflict everyone, even children, and spawns a series of unexplained accidents and crimes that raise everyone’s level of paranoia. A doctor is injured in a fall after his horse trips over a wire strung between poles. A woman dies after she falls through rotten floorboards. A pastor punishes his son by tying his arms to the sides of his bed at night. Another boy is found horribly beaten.
Haneke skips from household to household, using long takes to capture sudden moments of abuse, psychological and physical, that erupt with increasing frequency. A man dismisses his mistress with unforgivable cruelty (“You’re ugly, flabby, messy and have bad breath”). The doctor expresses a little too much physical affection toward his daughter.
Despite the turmoil, the citizens maintain a veneer of placid content, and the collective silence further helps to corrode the village’s morals. “The White Ribbon” is undeniably intriguing on an intellectual level, but Haneke’s flat, austere direction, intended to augment the growing horrors, instead results in tedium. Despite the occasional effective scene, you never feel the dread and revulsion “The White Ribbon” wants to convey.
The director’s cool, remote touch has been fiendishly effective in previous films, but in “The White Ribbon,” his remove leaves you cold.