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The White Ribbon (2009)

Films du Losange/Sony Pictures Classics

In “The White Ribbon” Michael Haneke does Bergman. That is to say, he approximates the Swedish master’s characteristically austere, rigidly formalist style that contains only the most slightly submerged sadistic undertones. The winner of the Palme d’or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, it’s an intermittently effective experiment that’s too often derailed by the pervasive sense of overcalculation.

The picture’s dictated — in a fashion that links it with much of Mr. Haneke’s work — by profoundly negative emotions and the pervasive threat of violence, here carried out by seemingly innocent children. It’s set in a Bavarian village sometime before WWI, where strange, gruesome events start happening. A man is hung, a barn set ablaze, a child beaten and the town school teacher (Christian Friedel) tries to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Characterized by sinister swells of music, the innocent façade put on by the actors and the suddenness with which the carnage comes forth, the movie can be a deeply unsettling experience. Shot with pristine, black-and-white simplicity, emphasizing close-ups and spare backgrounds, Mr. Haneke evokes an insular world cut off from the currents of modernity. Reliant on antiquated traditions and steadfast systems of order, the village presents the sort of atmosphere that breeds terrible secrets, perverse behavior and a gradual civilized breakdown.

But on a base level, “The White Ribbon” frequently comes across as more of a work of highfalutin sociology than compelling cinema. For Mr. Haneke, the milieu serves as a predicator for the cruel brutality of the Nazi regime and its hordes of enablers. The deep, dark impulses buried beneath the mannered façade here on the cusp of the Great War, become the operating principle two decades later. Restrained almost to a fault, with characters constricted by social mores and the writer-director’s endless manipulations, “The White Ribbon” succumbs to its artifice, a quasi-academic exercise in mood and style at the expense of character and story.


Opened on Dec. 30 in New York.

Written and directed by Michael Haneke; director of photography, Christian Berger; edited by Monika Willi; produced by Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Margaret Menegoz and Andrea Occhipinti; released by Sony Pictures Classics. In German, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Ulrich Tukur (the Baron), Susanne Lothar (the Midwife), Christian Friedel (the Schoolteacher), Burghart Klaussner (the Pastor), Leonie Benesch (Eva), Josef Bierbichler (the Steward), Rainer Bock (the Doctor), Ernst Jacobi (the Narrator), Ursina Lardi (Marie-Louise, the Baroness), Fion Mutert (Sigmund), Branko Samarovski (the Farmer), Leonard Proxauf (Martin),Maria- Victoria Dragus (Klara) and Michael Kranz (the Tutor).


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