Michael Haneke’s Palm d'Or winner is a meticulously executed drama of life in a German small-town ahead of World War I. Now playing at the Paramount in Wellington. Click here for session info.
Rich, troubling and novelistic in scope, Michael Haneke’s most ambitious work to date begins with a horse rider galloping straight at the screen towards an unseen tripwire. It’s a fitting image for the film as a whole. The townsfolk of the fictional Eichwald, their country, and the world at large are heading inexorably towards the cataclysm of war, and there’s nothing to be done but watch, wait and, hopefully, learn something.
Haneke is a master of the cinematic autopsy and here he turns his scalpel to the roots of extremism, most obviously Nazism. Delineated by their jobs – pastor, teacher, doctor – Eichwald’s ruling classes profess Christian values to their children and underlings but rarely practise what they preach. The doctor is vicious to his lover and abusive to his daughter; the pastor turns a blind eye instead of the other cheek. Directly, but in seismic, unseen waves, the sins of these fathers lead to the anonymous evils befalling the town – a ruined crop, a burned barn, injured children – as if such hypocrisy is a problem that can only be sublimated never solved.
In fact, very little of this is apparent during a first viewing, and though technically flawless – the cinematography and the child actors are stunning – some will find The White Ribbon overcomplicated and chill, even by Haneke’s standards. Stick with it, though, and the results resemble a beautiful ice sculpture. Up close, it’s a blur of meticulous details that don’t quite make sense; but step back and its towering ambitions become indelibly apparent.