Something wicked this way comes 

Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke makes films about human cruelty, and his latest, “The White Ribbon,” is an ambitious tapestry set in a pre-Nazi, and metaphorically universal, German village.

This isn’t huggable stuff; townsfolk do everything from abuse their offspring to kill Dad’s canary. But it’s a masterfully presented drama with something significant to say about the evil we do and how we process our actions.

The temper is hermetic, Protestant and severe in Haneke’s 1913 German village setting, a sort of toxic Grover’s Corners where malicious doings are occurring.

Three powerful men — a baron (Ulrich Tukur), a pastor (Burghart Klaussner) and a doctor (Rainer Bock) — are the general targets of the incidents, which a schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) describes to us decades later in voice-over.

A wickedly planted tripwire seriously injures the doctor. Two young boys are brutally beaten. A suspicious fire erupts. A sick baby gets a chill due to an inexplicably opened window. Whodunit?

The teacher believes that children are responsible and that their leaders may be the pastor’s too-angelic daughter and her haunted-looking brother (a boy with a visage Edvard Munch would love).

Echoing Haneke’s “Cache,” the film offers no resolution.

Rather, Haneke shows disturbing behavior — the pastor beats his disobedient children and makes them wear a humiliating white ribbon; the doctor sexually abuses his teenage daughter and treats his midwife lover (Susanne Lothar) heartlessly — and suggests that the sins and brutal mentalities of parents have infected their children.

There is nothing eye-opening about this message, and Haneke, for all his harshness, isn’t a penetrating enough filmmaker to move you deep down.

But fulfilling cinema this is. Haneke has made an expertly navigated, excellently acted, visually exquisite (black-and-white imagery is by cinematographer Christian Berger), and compellingly eerie drama about what he has called the “roots of evil.”

It’s both a site-specific story (we quickly realize what these children, in 1913 Germany, will grow up to be) and a broader exploration of what happens in places where there is systemic suppression of humanity.

The film additionally benefits from a human element not present in meaner-spirited Haneke fare like “The Piano Teacher” or “Funny Games.”

Particularly unforgettable is the scene, made harrowing by Rembrandt-style lighting, in which the doctor’s little boy, too young to have become horrid, accidentally witnesses his older sister and his father in an unsavory encounter.

More lightly, we have the courtship of the teacher and a shy 17-year-old nanny (Leonie Benesch), the story’s most decent mature characters. Sweetness may be a trait alien to Haneke’s double helix, but something of the sort is indeed happening here.


MOVIE REVIEW
The White Ribbon

Three and a half stars

Starring Christian Friedel, Burghart Klaussner, Ulrich Tukur, Rainer Bock
Written and directed by Michael Haneke
Rated R
Running time: 2 hours
24 minutes

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