Trendy filmmakers like apocalyptic messages that say the end is near. Austrian Michael Haneke, being an artiste, likes to tell us it’s already happened. His latest tale of post-apocalyptic purgatory, The White Ribbon, is set during a new millennium in a small Eastern European town where blond-haired townsfolk—including school-age kids who ought to be out singing and gathering “Edelweiss”—variously abuse each other. Think Children of the Damned, Children of the Corn, Children of Men. Think childishly in order to believe that Haneke’s rip-offs of Carl Dreyer atmosphere and Ingmar Bergman sexual hysteria are at all original.
It’s Haneke’s second-hand art-movie affectations that impress festival curators and critics into thinking he ranks with cinema’s greats. They confer importance on his patronizing exploitation of modern pessimist mood—not the eternal truths that Dreyer and Bergman dramatized. Today’s children of corniness can’t tell the difference. The White Ribbon uses two devices: 1) implying the decadence of white racist inbreeding: 2) state-of-the-art (presumably superior) photography. Nothing impresses contemporary dilettantes more than Nazis and dig video technology. Haneke bedevils both.
The village where The White Ribbon takes place is full of strange disappearances, vicious recriminations and self-abnegating moral strictures. Women are kept in their place as chattel. Children are under severe control, lest sadistic punishment—a practice they learn to inflict upon animals and each other. Haneke produces suspense/disbelief from how nasty things can get; viewers wait for cruelty to occur as if the anticipation itself required intelligence or compassion. Pandering to viewers’ worst fears (here or in Pan’s Labyrinth) has become a sure way to win acclaim; especially if audiences are naïve enough to think cynicism is truth or that Haneke is doing something new.
Christian Berger’s videography is stark black-and-white; slick, yet without the luster or shadow of celluloid imagery. It’s not the revolutionary molding of light that Bergman achieved in the ’60s with Sven Nykvist (Winter Light, The Silence, Persona, Shame, Hour of the Wolf), although Haneke purposely alludes to those films. The effect is like the pseudo-postmodernism in Nine where the new movie feels even worse if you know Fellini’s 8 1/2 and can track the next narrative traduction. Here, the obvious symbolism (a scythe in a cabbage patch; a boy’s bowl-breaking tantrum upon learning about death) and the aggravated sexual antipathy (a paternalistic doctor humiliating his mistress; her angry accusations about his fidelity and incest) suggest parodies of Dreyer, then Bergman—except Haneke, as always, is humorless.
Haneke’s titular ribbon evokes Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter; it’s a badge symbolizing purity but a sign of penance (white ribbons are used to tie a boy’s arms to his bed to prevent masturbation). But Haneke is also aware that he’s evoking the badges (stars) that Nazis pinned on their various victims. No wonder The White Ribbon is being accorded more serious treatment than it deserves; it’s the same Nazi-junkie hysteria that makes people revere Tarantino’s Elie-Weisel-on-weed goof Inglourious Basterds. The Holocaust becomes a fallback for apocalypse junkies. When Haneke’s minister intones “Life in our community is God’s will,” his arrogance rouses modern secular skepticism. In a divinity class scene, students are forced to recite the Lord’s Prayer as punishment (recalling the blasphemous prayer scene in Haneke’s Funny Games). Bergman prelates were not signs of social decay, only personal turmoil, but Haneke sells easy nihilism. Set pre-WWI, before inevitable social change, The White Ribbon’s corrupt clergy and misanthropic villagers automatically incite the usual German distrust.
The White Ribbon looks especially lousy this year after Gotz Spielmann’s powerful Revanche found contemporary correlatives for the spiritual struggle that Dreyer and Bergman once defined for a troubled world. Haneke’s cornball routines also fail for me, having recently enjoyed the new DVD collection of the 1960s Peyton Place TV series where small-town intrigue was explicated with moral richness inspired by the emotive, mid-20th-century’s theatrical giants O’Neill, Williams and Inge. Whatever Haneke’s inspiration, the result is malice, envy, apathy, brutality. Haneke’s apocalypse—like his holocaust—is predetermined. His godless universe is a nihilist’s cliché.
The White Ribbon
Directed by Michael Haneke
Run time: 144 min.
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