Pre-WWI Aryan progeny, sowing seeds of fascism

"The White Ribbon," which won the grand prize at Cannes in May, is severe, doom-laden, and full of contempt.
"The White Ribbon," which won the grand prize at Cannes in May, is severe, doom-laden, and full of contempt.
Posted: January 22, 2010

Horrific accidents. Children beaten and mistreated. A doctor on horseback tripped by a wire. A barn lit ablaze.

In Michael Haneke's ice-cold The White Ribbon, a tranquil country village in pre-World War I Germany is shaken by a series of disturbing, puzzling events.

As he did in 2005's stomach-churningly creepy Caché, the Austrian writer-director leaves the ultimate cause, or source, of such ominous circumstances unclear. There are clues to point this way or that, but Haneke - more interested in the psychology of his characters than in something as piddling as plot - doesn't bother with conclusions.

Instead, in The White Ribbon, we are left to contemplate the seeds of fascism: The film, in its depiction of children exposed to emotional and physical violence, to humiliation and betrayal, to bigotry and hate, and to an unloving brand of Protestantism, represents the awful future of Germany - a future that leads to the Holocaust.

Instead of the alien progeny of the great English sci-fi chiller Village of the Damned (the spooky calm of the 1960 B-movie must have inspired Haneke), here we get Aryan progeny, dagger-eyed and dispassionate, in their braids and short pants, set to grow up and become eager citizens of the Third Reich.

At the center of the dark business of The White Ribbon, a black-and-white film of chilling beauty, is a bumbling schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) whose efforts to fit into the community are stymied at every turn. It is the teacher, as an older man, recalling this history, who narrates the mysterious goings-on; it is from the teacher's vantage that we witness the troubling string of tragedies and traumas that beset the town. We also witness his awkward courtship of Eva (Leonie Benesch), a nanny for the Baron's family. The couple's nervous romance is like some clumsy ballet.

Yes: the Baron, the Doctor, the Pastor . . . for the most part, adults are defined by their positions in society. It is only the children who are called by their names.

Shot by the immensely talented cinematographer Christian Berger, The White Ribbon is a work of brutal severity. It won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and has won accolades all over the place.

But unlike Caché and Code: Unknown, where Haneke's investigations into societal and spiritual despair resonated with poetic force, The White Ribbon doesn't resonate at all. The filmmaker's doom-laden view of humanity - that we are all unredeemably awful creatures, easily swayed to do dastardly things - oozes with contempt. Contempt for his subjects in their not-so-sleepy little town, but contempt for his audience, too.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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