Menace, coldly calculated
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Feb. 12, 2010
With its austere black-and-white cinematography and meticulously composed frames, "The White Ribbon" lunges hungrily for serious art-film credibility. Don't be fooled.
Writer-director Michael Haneke ("Funny Games," "Cache") has made a specialty of trying to sell essentially shallow, unexceptional ideas with shocking or heavily aestheticized imagery. "The White Ribbon," recently nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is no exception. Set in a small northern German town on the cusp of World War I, the macabre story features a community riven by class resentment, mutual suspicion and everyday lies that come to the fore when a series of mysterious violent crimes occur.
There's no doubt that Haneke knows how to set and control emotional tone: "The White Ribbon" provides something of a master class in how to create a world both visually stylized and utterly believable. (His simultaneous evocation of the modern and the archaic recalls Luis Buuel's "Diary of a Chambermaid" or Franois Truffaut's "The Wild Child.") And he possesses an uncommonly astute sense of casting, here finding an ensemble of children whose faces convey innocence -- making it all the more unbearable when the adults around them break faith -- but also menace.
With its lurking sense of doom and moral fatalism, the grim fairy tale of "The White Ribbon" doesn't presage World War I so much as World War II, seeking to locate the seeds of fascism in a generation infected by religious hypocrisy and authoritarian abuses of power. It's a simplistic notion, disturbing not in its surprise or profundity, but in the sadistic trouble the filmmaker has taken to advance it.
Contains disturbing content involving violence and sexuality. In German with subtitles.