Full disclosure: I'm an ardent fan of the films of Austrian director Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Cache, The Time of the Wolf, The Piano Teacher), which sometimes get rapped for being a little too obsessed with the human capacity for cruelty and the cyclical nature of evil. Haneke is a commanding and provocative filmmaker, and to say that his world view is bleak does not do his vision justice: Even Lars Von Trier comes off as an optimist by comparison.
But The White Ribbon, Haneke's latest and much-acclaimed new movie, the leading contender for the Best Foreign Language Oscar and winner of the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is - how to put this politely? - an artsy bore. Haneke's ambitions are admirable: Using the increasingly strange events in a small German village shortly before the start of World War I to illustrate how cruelty, violence and sadism can spread like a virus and how the fascism that would become prevalent in the 1930s sprang from seemingly peaceful, family-oriented people.
But Haneke has dramatized his intellectual conceits in an uninvolving, snail-paced movie that illustrates its themes in an obvious, almost banal manner. Shot in soft-focus black-and-white intended to make the film look as if it had been made in the era it unfolds, The White Ribbon even resorts to that old screenwriter's crutch - the voiceover narrator - to make sure no one misses the point. There are no obvious villains in The White Ribbon: The malevolence that permeates the seemingly idyllic town seems to afflict everyone, even children, and spawns a series of unexplained accidents and crimes that raise everyone's level of paranoia. A doctor is injured in a fall after his horse trips over a wire strung between poles. A woman dies after she falls through rotten floorboards. A pastor punishes his son by tying his arms to the sides of his bed at night. Another boy is found horribly beaten and potentially blinded.
Haneke skips from household to household, using long takes to capture sudden moments of abuse, psychological and physical, that erupt with increasing frequency. A man dismisses his mistress with unforgivable cruelty (‘‘You're ugly, flabby, messy and have bad breath''). The town's doctor expresses a little too much physical affection toward his teenage daughter. And children start roaming in packs, like the demon seeds from Village of the Damned, innocents turned into threatening figures - Nazis in the making. Despite the turmoil, the citizens maintain a veneer of placid content, and the collective silence further helps to corrode the village's morals.
This all sounds a lot more interesting than it play out, though. The White Ribbon is undeniably intriguing on an intellectual level, but Haneke's flat, austere direction, intended to augment the growing horrors, instead results in tedium. Despite the occasional effective scene, you never feel the dread and revulsion The White Ribbon wants to convey. You can only hear Haneke lecturing, lamenting the evil that will sprout from the seeds being planted under the guise of a puritanical, largely Protestant society blind to its hypocrisy. The director's cool, remote touch has been fiendishly effective in previous films, but in The White Ribbon, his remove leaves you cold.
The White Ribbon opens Friday Feb. 12 at South Beach in Miami and Sunrise in Fort Lauderdale.