A grim, slow-paced black-and-white foreign language film that clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half hours and doesn’t feature aliens, Megan Fox, or the twee language of hipsterville? You’ve already stopped reading, haven’t you? There’s enough glaze over your eyes to frost a bundt cake. But before you nod off and go to your Zooey Deschanel and Christian Bale happy place, content in your obliviousness of the expected Oscar nominee, The White Ribbon, at least know this: It was directed by German-born Michael Haneke, who is one of the most sadistic filmmakers on the planet. The man has a fiercely bleak view of humanity (see also, Cache and Funny Games [both versions]), and he seems to be taking out his anger and cynicism on his audience, who have to expect, by now, to be treated the same way he treats his characters: With disdain.
But give the man credit for White Ribbon, which is so spare, oppressive, fastidiously constructed and thematically heavy that you barely notice that it’s essentially Village of the Damned by way of the art house. Set in a small German village, leading up to World War I, White Ribbon opens with a horse carrying the town doctor; the horse trips over a wire, badly injuring him (you’ll feel worse for the horse). Two days later, the farmer’s wife is killed in an accident at the sawmill, and the Baron’s young son is subsequently hung upside at the same location in the sawmill and tortured. Much later, the midwife’s son, who has Down’s Syndrome, is also blinded under mysterious circumstances.
There might have been something of a mystery to each of the events if it weren’t for the fact that the pastor’s children appeared — all naive and innocent looking, like stabby little Angels — soon after each of these incidents, looking to all the world like a gaggle of Damiens comforting their mother after they furtively pushed the baby carriage down a flight of stairs.
What of the rest of the townspeople? Despicable sinners, every last goddamn one of them. The midwife is banging the doctor; the doctor is diddling his own daughter; the Baroness is hooking up with an Italian; and perhaps the worst sinner of all is the masturbating prodigal son, who has his hands tied to the bed to prevent him from getting intimate with himself. Sick bastard. The pastor is the dominating moral voice of the film, and he’s got a wicked Puritanical streak. Late for dinner? Fuck you. That’ll be ten strokes of the cane, son, and why don’t you wear this white ribbon around your arm for the next year to purify you of your sins.
Hanneke uses his longtime cinematographer Christian Berger, who clearly knows his way around minimalist lighting — the entire movie seems to be saturated in dark hues of moral judgmentalism. Only the schoolteacher — who also acts as narrator — escapes Haneke’s judgment, and when he’s onscreen, the shadows seem to subside.
But the crisp stylism, the sumptuous cinematography, the intense focus, and the deliberately glacial pace of The White Ribbon (it’s slow? Must be smart then, huh?) fails to obscure what lies beneath Haneke’s malicious cruelty, namely an old-fashioned bad seed flick. The clichés are buried beneath the black and white, and you can barely see the forest through the perverse hate, but The White Ribbon is still an ominous horror movie masquerading as art-house fare.
Then again, it’s a horror movie with a point: That these childrens’ worship of Kinder, Küche, Kirche will cleanse them of emotion, and drain them of thought, which will someday make them excellent vessels for the Third Reich. If that point hadn’t been driven home so consciously and with such weary sterility, it might have been effectively shuddersome. Instead, the ambiguous ending — which doesn’t feel particularly ambiguous if you’d been paying attention to the telegraphed clues — is a limp conclusion to an otherwise bloodlessly violent and reprehensible film.