Michael Haneke can be an exasperating filmmaker. Pretentious, too. In 2008, the German writer-director gave us the repellent Funny Games, a hyperviolent English-language remake of his own movie. Before that came Caché, an interesting if slow-paced thriller with a vague ending that could be maddening to viewers who expect answers out of their whodunits. Haneke’s latest, The White Ribbon, more closely resembles the latter. But although it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, its murky storyline, phalanx of hard-to-distinguish characters, and glacial pace leaves only the impression that both Haneke and the Academy can do better.
The film takes place in 1913 Germany and is narrated by a timid village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel). He begins by noting that he’s not sure that the story he’s about the tell is entirely true, a detail that suggests Haneke intends the film as parable. Then the bucket spills: First, a doctor (Ranier Bock) is injured when the horse he’s riding trips over a wire whose placement and quick disappearance no one is willing to explain. Soon after, the wife of a farmer dies by falling through the rotting floorboards of the estate of the local baron (Urlich Tukur). The baron’s young son is tortured, a teenage girl is molested by her father, a pastor (Burghart Klaubner) beats his kids for arriving late for dinner. A bird belonging to the pastor is killed and left on his desk, scissors still in its body.
There are more “accidents” and ugly incidents that occur during The White Ribbon’s nearly two and a half hours, most apparently meant as punishment for various sins. Except in the cases where an elder is dishing out the discipline—e.g., the pastor—the perpetrators are never revealed. It’s strongly hinted that the kinda-creepy village children are to blame, but nearly all characters have festering anger and motives. When a girl asks the schoolteacher, “Sir, do dreams come true?”, you know she doesn’t mean it in the Disney sense.
And in any case, you’ll never discover the truth. This open-endedness (even the final scene is reminiscent of Caché’s) might be satisfying if the rest of the story didn’t meander so messily. Or if the characters, the women and girls in dark dresses and fierce buns, were fewer and better developed. Of the cast, Klaubner and Bock stand out, the former for the hypocrisy behind his angelic front and the latter for his slowly revealed sleaziness. The rest will distract you as you try to place them among the many families.
The White Ribbon is presented in black and white, with Haneke filming a few scenes almost completely in the dark. The decision does reflect the puritanism of the village but is also maddening when you can’t see what’s going on. But even if every scene were presented clear as day, it’s likely you wouldn’t always know what’s going on, anyway—and eventually won’t care.