Seasoned moviegoers have come to recognize certain visual cues that let them know they’re about to witness scenes of unspeakable brutality: A close-up of a pot of boiling liquid in a movie that’s not about cooking. The emergence of a straight razor in a scene not set in a barbershop. And the five words: “Ein film von Michael Haneke.”
Actually, by Haneke standards, “The White Ribbon” isn’t the kind of cinematic waterboarding we’ve come to expect from the stern Austrian auteur, but while it may not be as viscerally horrifying as, say, “Funny Games,” it’s still a grim and potent moviegoing experience.
Set entirely in a small farming community on the eve of World War I, “The White Ribbon” feels like a cross between “Le Corbeau” and “Village of the Damned” as directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. The town suddenly finds itself beset with crimes and misdemeanors: The local doctor’s horse trips over a wire, the baron’s son is kidnapped and beaten. Children go missing, crops are vandalized, a young disabled boy is tortured.
No one seems to know who or what is behind all this, but as we get to know the citizens of this town, we see a rot among its power figures, from the baron to the pastor to the doctor. “The White Ribbon” is narrated by the local schoolteacher, and as a man of little power, prestige or wealth among the locals, he naturally emerges as the one beacon of humanity.
Whereas Jean Renoir’s “La Grande Illusion” looked at World War I as the destroyer of a kinder, gentler way of life in Europe, Haneke dispels that myth, portraying his characters as utterly corrupt and cruel, not to mention trapped in what basically amounts to a feudal system.
Beautifully shot in black and white by Haneke’s frequent collaborator Christian Berger, “The White Ribbon” rarely strays from a stark and chilly vision of the world. Apart from a few scenes of tenderness between the schoolteacher and his young girlfriend, almost every moment in the film portrays dominance, neglect, abuse or cruelty — or some combination thereof.
Still, over its 145-minute running time, the film is never less than riveting. Even without the whodunit element woven throughout, the story has a perversely compelling magnetism; you find yourself on the edge of your seat wondering what awful act will be committed by which character next. Vengeance, bitterness and religious extremism all play a part, but ultimately, this is another horror show in which Haneke peers into the darkest recesses of our shared humanity.
The promotional materials for “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond” can’t remind you often enough that the film is based on a never-produced screenplay by Tennessee Williams, his only work written directly for the screen.
But given the caliber of Williams’ work that did see the light of day onscreen in his lifetime — the loony “Boom!” (1968), based on his Broadway flop “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” leaps to mind — it’s worth noting that some unproduced scripts should probably have stayed that way.
Bryce Dallas Howard stars as beautiful, hard-drinking Fisher Willow, heir to two fortunes but a social pariah after the suspicious dynamiting of levees on her father’s property caused several people living just south of him to drown. Her strict grandmother (Ann-Margret) nonetheless insists that Fisher participate in that season’s debutante balls, so Fisher presses Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans) into service as her escort.