Christian Friedel & Leonie Benesch in the movie The White Ribbon

Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke once cited Roberto Rossellini's "Germany Year Zero" (1948), shot in postwar Berlin, as a key influence on his cinematic thinking. The devastating story of a young boy's corruption in the midst of literal and spiritual rubble posed a question: How did it come to this?

"The White Ribbon," Haneke's latest film, tries to answer that question by way of historical prologue. Set a generation earlier in 1913, it relays a mystery, or rather a series of mysterious, increasingly vicious cruelties perpetrated by unknown parties in a northern German village. True to Haneke's temperament and stern moralist's outlook, "The White Ribbon" does not itself go in for much nuance of human behavior. There are a fragile handful of good people being suffocated by an ever-tightening circle of bad. Watching the daisy chain of events is akin to auditing a seminar on incipient fascism taught by a master filmmaker who speaks in a steely murmur, confident of his research.

It is a silvery panorama, originally shot in color but transformed into mesmerizing black and white, of repressed and sporadically released anguish. Haneke's vision is gripping. The craftsmanship, classically shaped narrative and icy visual beauty cannot be denied.

The title refers to a symbol of innocence and purity. The Protestant village pastor (Burghart Klaussner, perfect in his fastidious self-regard) punishes his children for various infractions by making them wear the ribbon. He suspects one son of masturbation; why else, he reasons, would the boy have become so "depressed and joyless"?

Meanwhile a daughter, Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus, who appears to have stepped out of a German-language version of "Village of the Damned"), acts as ringleader of a roving group of children. They may be responsible for the rash of bizarre incidents recalled by the village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel as a young man, Ernst Jacobi in present-day voice-over). The first of these incidents involves the local doctor (Rainer Bock) nearly killed in a horse-riding accident, owing to a metal trip-wire strung between two trees near the doctor's home. Later, one of the tenant farmers in the employ of the local baron (Ulrich Tukur) loses his wife in an accident.

The underclass resentment toward the overlords simmers, dangerously. Everyone has secrets. One family's child endures sexual abuse; another family's children reprocess their own violent humiliations on others, including the developmentally disabled boy of the doctor's long-suffering midwife (Susanne Lothar). "The White Ribbon" ties a meticulous bow on a big theme, that of the roots of fascism in any society, and the malignancy, as Haneke perceives and infers, in Germany's national character in particular.

The filmmaker has dealt before with intimations of national guilt, most brilliantly in "Cache," which remains one of the richest and most confounding achievements in contemporary filmmaking. (Also it boasts the most dazzlingly open-ended coda in pop fiction, alongside the finale of "The Sopranos.") Unlike "Cache," however, "The White Ribbon" risks only so much narrative evasion. The elegance of its period re-creations offers a kind of cinematic solace, even when things are getting more awful by the minute. Haneke and his spectacular (and frequent) cinematographer, Christian Berger, transform the scenes into crisp, brutal, beautifully acted vignettes. "The world won't collapse," characters keep saying, yet of course it's about to do just that.

I wish Haneke didn't spell out things so clearly when the baroness decries her surroundings as a breeding ground for "malice, envy, apathy and brutality." The filmmaker's best work has typically found a way to freak us out obliquely, at least until it's time for the sledgehammer. Haneke is very likely the coldest great filmmaker we have, and here he wants to show us how Nazi ideology could gain a foothold and then a stranglehold on an entire populace. (Playwright Odon von Horvath was doing the same in his stunningly prescient plays of the 1920s and early '30s.)

The precise answer to the question of "The White Ribbon" -- who is doing these horrible things? -- isn't the issue here, Haneke argues. The evil lies deep in the psyches and the beliefs of these blinkered people. No one mentions the word "Jew" in this fiercely Protestant microcosm, yet a key scene between the pastor and the schoolteacher suggests that the pastor is all too willing to scapegoat the teacher, who may be Jewish (it's never stated), if it means maintaining the corrosive status quo.

"The White Ribbon" is methodical and dispassionate but not without hope, thanks to the improbably (for Haneke) sweet courtship of the teacher and the baron's nanny (Leonie Benesch). Also, a heartbreaking preteen actor named Thibault Serie plays Gustav, the pastor's son who has somehow escaped the poisons swirling around him. With this casting, and this character, Haneke is saying to us: If this darling, seemingly incorruptible figure is spared, we'll have to chalk it up to sheer, blind luck.


MPAA rating: R (for some disturbing content involving violence and sexuality).

Running time: 2:25.

Cast: Christian Friedel (The Schoolteacher); Leonie Benesch (Eva); Ulrich Tukur (The Baron);Ursina Lardi (The Baroness); Burghart Klaussner (The Pastor); Maria-Victoria Dragus (Klara); Rainer Bock (The Doctor); Susanne Lothar (The Midwife)

Credits: Written and directed by Michael Haneke; produced by Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Margaret Menegoz and Andrea Occhipinti. A Sony Pictures Classics release. In German with English subtitles.


The White Ribbon Movie Review - Christian Friedel & Leonie Benesch