Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke likes to punish his audience, but his latest film, The White Ribbon—winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2009 Cannes film festival, and an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, though it lost to Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes—ranks among his least effective provocations. The film announces itself as a long haul right from its ultra-austere, respect-my-authoritay opening credits: white letters, black screen, complete silence. Three minutes of that and you start feeling like you should open your desk and pull out your notebook, and the lengthy (two and a half hours), deliberate black-and-white period piece that follows does nothing to stave off the sense that your knuckles might be rapped at any moment.
Set in the months leading up to World War I, The White Ribbon—named for a symbol of purity worn around the arm—observes a small, creepy German hamlet in which the adult males are interchangeable abusive martinets (with a dash of incestuous pedophilia), the adult females are uniformly codependent, and every single child looks as if (s)he’s en route to an open casting call for Village of the Damned. Strange things are afoot, we’re told by the narrator, but they’re not really all that strange: a horse tripped by a wire here, a bloody beating there. Mostly, they serve to illustrate Haneke’s usual thesis, which is that human beings are inherently deceitful and cruel and hence unworthy of musical accompaniment, much less color.
At his most fractured and elliptical (Code Unknown, Caché), or when he’s just flat-out assaultive (as in both versions of Funny Games), Haneke can make his stern lectures on man’s inhumanity to man artfully thrilling. The White Ribbon, however, which is clearly meant to foreshadow darker decades ahead in Germany—these abused, abusive kids will come of age just as the Nazis rise to power—withholds any sense of messy humanity, and without inspiring you to consider your own worst impulses. It’s just a big, arty dose of castor oil. No wonder Oscar approves.