Film Highlight: The White Ribbon

Maria-Victoria Dragus as Klara (the pastor's daughter), Leonard Proxauf as Martin (the pastor's son)
courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The White Ribbon is Michael Haneke's first German-language film since the original Funny Games (1997), and it's his best ever. A period piece set on the eve of World War I in a Protestant, still-feudal village somewhere in the uptight depths of northern Germany, The White Ribbon is as cold and creepy and secretly cheesy as any of Haneke's earlier films, if not quite as lofty. Instead of sermonizing, Haneke sets himself to honest craftsmanship. The White Ribbon's original title identifies the movie as a "German children's story" and, recounted by the village schoolteacher 40 or 50 years later, this dark fable has a mock legendary aspect. The tale may not reflect the "truth in every detail," the elderly narrator announces. Many questions are unanswerable, he admits, and yet "the strange events that occurred in our village...may cast a new light on some of the goings-on in this country." No need to speculate on what those goings-on might be. The first strange event occurs seconds into the action when the irascible village doctor is thrown by his horse. Thereafter, this quiet town, nestled into a peaceful landscape yet seething with hidden resentments, is subjected to an escalating series of inexplicable accidents and unsolved incidents of terror, most of which are discussed but never shown. Haneke's use of narrative uncertainty may be standard-issue, but there's no denying The White Ribbon's seriousness. The severe, withholding culture that Haneke critiques is precisely mirrored by his methods.

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