I was playing ping pong with a guy the other day who said, “I mean, I watch a lot of movies, but I don’t have people that are like MY directors, you know?” “I don’t understand. Can you explain that more thoroughly?” I replied, because he can’t talk and play at the same time. Later when I was counting my winnings I thought about it. I don’t know what calling him “my director” entails, something awful probably, but a new Michael Haneke movie is a thing I have to watch.
The White Ribbon came out in Europe nine months ago but it’s just getting released in the U.S. now. It’s not like Haneke’s other films because it doesn’t take place in recent times or have a character act out intense personal shame with a video camera. It is also black and white. Other than that, it’s classic Haneke. A community socially repressing its people until they lash out against it.
A young school teacher narrates the systematic unraveling of a town’s moral fabric. It probably began a modest and traditional place, but no longer. Intensely tragic events come one after another, coldly and logically. The characters’ seemingly small individual actions forecast catastrophic future events. The adults underestimate the awareness of the children with every moral oversight.
Haneke films are always a mix of psychological probing, social criticism, and disturbing horror. This one is set just before the start of WWI in a small Austrian town.
It jumps between different people in the community, their young romances and invasive gossip, their marital affairs and domestic violence, their desperate attempts to keep trudging along at any cost. The camera lingers longest over the children, who witness most closely the gruesome brutality that happens when others aren’t watching. We have to suspect, long after the movie ends, that no one in the town will ever live down these times.
The film is one of the most emotionally dense I’ve seen in years. And while I still have a personal affinity for Time of the Wolf, many will argue this is Haneke’s best. It’s surely his most ambitious.
Movies that are as subtle, heavy, and critical as this don’t come around everyday. And they certainly don’t get released often in theaters in this country, where we seem to have a low tolerance for the emotionally unnerving. Winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes and being a favorite to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film give this a free pass into theaters. Plenty of people will buy tickets not knowing what to expect and leave disappointed by the humanity they witnessed.
It’s a rare thing when a movie can strive to make audiences leave feeling disappointed, but again and again, this is what Haneke does. We’re not above the gruesome happenings in a foreign town in the 1910’s. We’re right there with them.