Review: 'White Ribbon'

(Four stars)

Malicious incidents occur in a small northern German village before the outbreak of World War I. A deliberately placed tripwire causes a doctor on horseback to take a terrible tumble. The wife of a tenant farmer falls through the floorboards of the sawmill where she works. The baron's young son, kidnapped and tortured, barely survives. Another child is beaten until almost blind. A barn goes up in flames.

Who does things like that?

The narrator of Michael Haneke's disturbing meditation on the spiritual, moral and economic climate of this seeming Village of the Damned asks that question. So will you. Although the mystery framework -- with its intrinsic promise of providing an answer -- arouses curiosity, Haneke ("The Piano Teacher," "Funny Games," "Cache") never fulfills audience expectations. The German-born and Austrian-raised director has a more ambitious goal: to invite reflection.

Haneke shows but never tells. Darkness lurks in the corners of his film frame, and narrative ambiguity leaves room for interpretation. To encourage the viewer to think rather than respond emotionally to his work, Haneke uses Brechtian distancing devices: the disembodied voice of the elderly narrator (Ernst Jacobi), once the village schoolteacher; unsympathetic characters; cinematographer Christian Berger's crisp black-and-white images that never depict the past in nostalgic soft focus; puzzling acts of cruelty that may or may not clarify such subsequent developments as National Socialism in Hitler's Germany or any authoritarian system that engenders terrorist acts today. You fill in the blanks.

For generations, the rural and remote village has operated as a patriarchal system with a ruling class. The wealthy baron (Ulrich Tukur) owns the land, and his economic sanctions and poor working conditions are now causing grumbles among the tenant farmers and foreign harvesters. Those under his hire, such as the steward (Josef Bierbichler) and the school teacher (Christian Friedel in a marvelous performance), carry out the master's bidding. But even the baron's wife (Ursina Lardi) can barely tolerate a life of captivity in this microcosm of the German Empire and Fatherland.

Moral authority comes in the form of a respected pastor (Burghart Klaussner) who whips his sinful children behind beautifully stenciled closed doors. He and his wife (Steffi Kuhnert) tie white ribbons, symbolic of innocence and purity, around the children's arms to remind them to be good. The doctor (Rainer Bock) and his relationship with the local midwife (Susanne Lothar) reveal more layers of cruelty and hypocrisy.

Violence breeds mistrust and fear -- and increasingly repressive rule. What turns an ideal into ideology?

With the painterly look and understated eloquence of a Bresson or Bergman classic, this year's Palme d'Or winner of the Cannes Film Festival raises intriguing questions that will linger long after the lights come up. Nothing is black and white but the color of the film.

Rated R for some disturbing content involving violence and sexuality. In German, Italian, Polish and Latin with English subtitles. 2 hours, 24 minutes.

— Susan Tavernetti

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