Approaching 70 years of age, Michael Haneke is one of the best we’ve got, a filmmaker you wait for to save any given year in the last decade from banality, sloppiness and forgettability. His run since the turn of the century (excluding, I think, the unnecessary 2007 American remake of the nastily high-handed “Funny Games”) has few rivals, and with luck, he’ll be blessed with a Ridley Scott-like septuagenarian workaholism and keep one-upping himself for years to come.
Each Haneke film is a shock to the system — “Cache” (2005) remains a thunderbolt for the ages, while it seems too few viewers have come to terms with “Time of the Wolf” (2003) — and “The White Ribbon” (2009) delivered another unforeseeable jolt, a brooding, Bergman-esque portrait of historical tragedy in which something terrible is happening and we’re never quite sure what.
But of course, we’re pretty sure it’s the children — Haneke’s original subtitle for the German version is “A German Children’s Story,” and while the homicidal disasters that befall the tiny, pre-WWI Mitteleuropean village could be anyone’s doing, the blond, oppressed herd of Protestant children are the most likely suspects (to us) and the most actively suspicious.
The mystery is no mystery — the movie has a “Village of the Damned” menace lurking in its fastidious black and white compositions, just as it lurks beneath the colorless rectitude of the feudal town’s Calvinist fathers.
But the “truth” of what’s going on stays permanently buried. Rather, as with all Haneke, the emphasis is on cause and effect, how catastrophe and evil only sprout in fields properly harrowed by human folly, and how the trauma, when it comes, rewards the powerful and complacent with their worst nightmares. It’s a gripping, secretive film, and the fact that the filmmaker keeps the “plot” unresolved is perfectly in keeping with his moral position.
Haneke is a terrorism scholar, a comeuppance expert, and the flowchart for his stories could explain the birth of Al Qaeda as something inevitable and destined and even deserved. You heap on self-serving abuse and privation, and the chickens will come home to roost.
In “The White Ribbon,” few prime-mover venalities are left out for the men, particular the village pastor (who hogties his son rather than have him masturbate at night) and the widowed doctor, who uses his 14-year-old daughter for sex. Parenting was not early-century Protestant Germany’s strong suit, it seems, and so the children fight back, off-screen and with implacably innocent faces, like the unseen hand of an entirely different God.
Extreme Protestantism is the film’s main whipping boy, and it’s in these extra undergarment layers where I find myself uncertain of Haneke’s mission. You cannot torch monotheism too thoroughly for me, generally speaking, but “The White Ribbon” can’t merely be about the crazy religious repression of yesteryear. What is the point of it?
The movie’s elusive metaphoric idea is made plain by a single line of narration — years after the events depicted, the narrator suggests that they “may cast a new light on some of the goings-on in this country.” We reflexively take this as the rise of National Socialism, of course.
But how seriously are we supposed to take that equation, proto-Calvinist abuse + time = the Holocaust? Do these placid but vengeful children grow up to be Gestapo? Does Haneke think the Christian dread of sexuality was responsible for WWII? Or is it just a Germanic thing, and I wouldn’t understand?