In his last movie, the unwatchable Funny Games, German-born filmmaker Michael Haneke punished a bourgeois American family by having them tied up and tortured by two preppy psychopaths (the film was a remake of Haneke's own 1997 German-language version). Prior to that, in the compelling Caché, Haneke punished a bourgeois French family by having them receive voyeuristic videos and creepy drawings. A few films earlier, The Piano Teacher featured Isabelle Huppert's bourgeois pianist punishing—or pleasuring?—herself with a razor blade. Notice a pattern?
If Haneke's new film, The White Ribbon, doesn't quite fit the same mold, it's not far off. Intriguing and maddening in equal measures, The White Ribbon (which won Cannes's top prize last May) tells the story of a German village that falls prey to a series of insidious happenings on the eve of World War I: a woman falls through a hole in the floor, a doctor on horseback trips over a stealthily planted wire, a boy is beaten senseless.
Gradually, our attention is drawn to a pack of eerily composed children who roam the village, casting their angelic-demonic gaze on the chaos unfolding around them. Haneke shows these kids being victimized at the hands of village elders—a doctor, a pastor, and a baron who terrorize the little ones with religious and moral guilt, all the while committing every sin imaginable themselves. Haneke is trying to get at the origins of German fascism—you don't need a calculator to figure out where these tykes are going to end up in a few decades—and it's a bracing idea. The film is shot in crisp black and white, and Haneke uses his typical stately pace and meticulously composed images to portray a superficially pristine community in a state of inner decay. If only he hadn't felt the need to make everyone on-screen so dour and austere! Haneke's ideas about moralistic societies sowing seeds of mass cruelty would have held far greater resonance had his characters tended toward recognizable humanity instead of Aryan zombieness.
The White Ribbon is a striking, in many ways indelible work, and it's tempting to be carried away by Haneke's craft and assurance as a filmmaker. Too often, though, one feels the filmmaker's systematically bleak worldview imposed on the story from above. Examining a toxically rigid society, Haneke is himself too rigid a director to open up this material to its most truly terrifying possibility: that totalitarianism emerges not from Children of the Corn monsters, but from real people like you and me.