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A scene from Michael Haneke's film The White Ribbon.

3 out of 4 stars


The White Ribbon

  • Directed and written by Michael Haneke
  • Starring Christian Friedel, Ulrich Tukur, Burghart Klaussner
  • Classification: NA

"To function, art has to rub salt in the wounds."

- Director Michael Haneke

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Smarting like hell, the artist and his art are at it again. Consequently, like most of Michael Haneke's films, The White Ribbon is profoundly disturbing, impeccably shot, superbly cast, allegorically ambitious and, yet, slightly disappointing - just enough to make you wonder if that salt-in-the-wounds theory is as dogmatic as the dogma he likes to condemn.

But there's a big distinction here, too. Unlike most of his earlier work, this picture retreats from the urban anomie of present-day France all the way back to the rural sanctuary of latter-day Germany - to be precise, northern Germany circa 1913, the winter before the guns of August fatally erupted. The setting, then, is the heart of the fatherland, and, essentially, Haneke is performing an autopsy. Scalpel in hand, he's out to dissect both the patriarchy and its dark heart, intent on identifying the cancerous cells that, isolated on the cusp of the First World War, would metastasize so horrifically in the Second.

Certainly, the village is a rigid male hierarchy, dominated at the top by the Baron and the Pastor - the one (Ulrich Tukur), the principal landowner responsible for the volk's economic well-being; the other (Burghart Klaussner) the stern Protestant charged with their moral upkeep. Beneath, also unnamed and occupying descending rungs of importance on the allegorical ladder, are the Doctor and the Steward and the Farmer and the Teacher. The last (Christian Friedel) doubles as our guide through the thickets, narrating the tale retrospectively and, by his own admission, perhaps unreliably. His first words: "I don't know if the story I'm about to tell you is entirely true."

Neither do we, yet this much is sure: The story is entirely unnerving, and deeply, deeply creepy. It revolves around a series of violent mishaps that beset the village, a few of which, like the death of the Farmer's wife, are probably accidental. But the majority are clearly deliberate: The Doctor and his horse are felled by a tripwire; the Baron's young boy is beaten and threatened; a pet budgie is eviscerated with a pair of scissors; a fire is started in a harvest-laden barn. There are more incidents, some trivial, others decidedly not. Yet don't think for a second this is a mere whodunit.

Liam Lacey's first look at The White Ribbon was at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. Now that it's in wide release, he's back for another take.

Although narrative mysteries abound in Haneke's canon (they're present in The Piano Teacher , in Caché , in FunnyGames ), he has no interest in their solution here. That specific truth is irrelevant to him (as is the unreliability of our narrator); instead, it's the general truth, the social atmosphere prompting the violence, that he's determined to disclose.

To that end, his black-and-white camera observes quietly from a middle distance, and each framed shot is as symmetrically ordered and as deceptively serene as the village itself. Deceptive because, beneath the pastoral veneer of the patriarchy, the fathers in the fatherland are uniformly and dictatorially cruel. They abuse their children in different ways and for different reasons - to preserve their status, to serve their faith, to satisfy their lust, or simply to exert their power. More distressing still, the children are not just cruelty's victims but its agents, too. Their white-ribboned innocence in tatters, they troop around in packs like the tykes from Village of the Damned , girls and boys alike, all so many blond time bombs waiting to wreak their havoc. As for the women, they're like the Teacher - ineffectual bystanders at best, accomplices at worst.

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Given the monochromatic look plus the bleak Protestant milieu, this often resembles the landscape of early Ingmar Bergman. However, Bergman's quest was existential, and his unresolved mysteries centred on the silence of God. By contrast, Haneke's search is sociological, and his abiding question has been asked by many before him: What predisposed this group of people, and by extension any such group, to eventually endorse a totalitarian regime?

But Haneke is no Hannah Arendt, and this is where the film, even while drawing us into its creepy web, also disappoints. His "sins of the fathers" argument seems both thin and trite. All fathers sin, yet their children don't all grow up to become jackbooted Nazis. Admittedly, the reasons cited in any high-school history class - Weimar inflation, the severity of the Treaty of Versailles - don't fully satisfy either.

More convincing, to me at least, is the autopsy conducted by Wibke Bruhns in her extraordinarily honest memoir, My Father's Country:The Story of a German Family . Wielding a similar scalpel, and asking the same question, Bruhns finds an answer not in a heart too dark but in one too light, embracing a lazy, myopic, cheap, flag-waving, non-empathetic sentimentality that disguises itself as love - love of fathers actual and totemic, love of everyone who thinks and acts like you, love of a popular culture that promotes and rewards that very brand of low sentimentality.

If Bruhns is right and that's the true banality of evil, if such blind sentimentality is the crack in the pavement that lines every Highway of Heroes, then the problem with The White Ribbon is that it's not banal enough to be really frightening, really painful and really resonant. Haneke doesn't stint on the salt, but maybe, in his own perversely popular way, he's rubbing it into the wrong wound.

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Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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