The White Ribbon -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

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There are well over thirty named characters in "The White Ribbon" (Das Weisse Band), the latest and largest film from acclaimed Austrian auteur Michael Haneke. Shot in a luscious black and white (replete with stunningly rigorous composition that visually furthers his themes), and once again in his native German after a series of successful films in French, "The White Ribbon" depicts life in a small Protestant village in northern Germany just before the advent of World War I. Like most of Haneke's previous films, it comes with an uncompromising moral point-of-view attached.

Sony Pictures Classics has U.S. rights and will benefit from the Haneke mini-craze that has swept the art-film circuit since the director's previous films like "The Piano Teacher" and "Cache." It's a superb cinematic work and an appropriately serious one, given its subject matter and its intentions. Still, its stately pace and its purposely de-dramatized scenes may keep it from attaining the boxoffice figures of the director's previous, perhaps flashier forays in the U.S. and European markets. What will help in the States is SPC's wise decision to release it with its extensive voiceover spoken in English.

The film is narrated by its central character, a young teacher, decades after the events depicted. Though the many children all have names, the adults, further extending the film's symbolic implications, tend to be known mostly through their generic roles, e.g., the Baron, the Pastor, the Farmer, the Doctor, and so on. Life in the village is strictly hierarchical, and everyone knows his or her place. An inhuman, never questioned moral code holds sway, especially over the children who are constantly punished, both physically and psychologically, for the slightest infraction. The women are similarly brutalized and under the thumb of the village's unabashed patriarchy. The adult males, on the other hand, engage in clandestine acts of evil and cruelty that are kept hushed up.

One day the order of things begins to unravel. First, the doctor, on horseback, is tripped up by an invisible wire and his injuries put him in the hospital for months. Then several children, including the son of the Baron and the retarded child of the doctor's mistress, are severely beaten. Later, the Baron's barn is set on fire. Who are the guilty ones? It is the teacher who finally figures out, to the surprise of no one, that it is the children that are wreaking the havoc, partly out of revenge for their mistreatment, and partly because they have so totally internalized the sick values of their parents.

On a more symbolic level, though Haneke is too much the serious artist to spell it out, it's clear that this portrait of a sick society is meant to explain, at least partially, the horrendous war that breaks out at the very end of the film, and the fascism that quickly followed in its wake.

Opens: Dec. 30, Los Angeles and New York (Sony Pictures Classics)

Sales: Les Films du Losange
Production companies: X Filme Creative Pool, Les Films du Losange, Wega Film, Lucky Red
Cast: Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi, Michael Kranz, Burghart Klaussner, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Josef Bierbichler, Rainer Bock, Branko Samarovski, Roxanne Duran
Director: Michael Haneke
Screenwriter: Michael Haneke
Producer: Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Margaret Menegoz, Andrea Occhipinti
Director of photography: Christian Berger
Production designer: Christoph Kanter
Costume designer: Moidele Bickel
Editor: Monika Willi
No rating, 145 minutes