It lacks the grizzly body horror that made Antichrist a succès de scandale, but it just may be that the grimmest film to come of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival is Austrian angst-meister Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner, The White Ribbon. Indeed, the violence may largely be off screen, but it’s palpable throughout this alternately starkly beautiful and oppressively bleak film.
The White Ribbon chronicles a series of menacing events plaguing a morally conservative German village on the cusp of WWI. A doctor’s horse is tripped, children go missing and turn up mysteriously abused, and hysteria mounts as the perpetrator remains all the while inscrutable. These acts of violence have a particularly strong effect on the children of the village, who are further subjected to the severe moral code imposed by their hypocritical parents.
Essentially, Haneke conflates the Protestant rigidity of the town with the rise of fascism in Germany. It’s an intriguing conceit that gives the film its intellectual heft, while several indelible images (shot in appropriately austere black and white) linger in the mind — a gruesome crucifix formed by a bird impaled by a pair of scissors, the broken and bloodied face of a young boy victimized by the unknown villain, the eerily stoic face of another, Martin (Leonard Proxauf), who suffers at the hands of his controlling father and whose perpetual scowl hardens into concentrated hatred as the film progresses.
In the end, what keeps The White Ribbon from being an unqualified triumph is its lack of emotional resonance. Haneke has always been a consciously distancing filmmaker — holding his audience at arm’s length to explore both modern alienation and the inherently artificial nature of cinema — but his icy intellectualism gets the better of him this time around. The unspeakable acts of violence that the audience is witness to register as effective allegory for the failures of a brutally patriarchal, unbending state, not as engaging human drama. Additionally, the director’s repeated use of violence against children as a device to shock his audience — as effective as it was in films like The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, and, particularly, Funny Games — has, at this point, begun to feel a bit like a crutch.
Still, technically and intellectually, The White Ribbon is often stunning, and Haneke continues to display an astounding level of artistry that dwarfs even the finest efforts of most other directors.