The White Ribbon ★★★★½

I originally downloaded this as part of "Michael Haneke" week of the 2017 Film School Dropouts challenge, but didn't get around to watching it until this month. In fact, my week of watching Haneke films has ended up turning into something of a saga, with me flip-flopping between love and hatred with each next movie of his I watch; but I detailed that journey in my review yesterday of Code Unknown, so I'll just direct you to that if you want to read more. For my fifth watch of the week, I ended up seeing the fairly recent The White Ribbon from 2009, which surprisingly turned out to be my favorite movie out of all of them, for a reason that can be summed up in one word -- oh yeah, that's right, cinematography! That's been the big thing missing from this television veteran's DV experiments from earlier in his career -- in his rush to embrace early and imperfect digital filmmaking, so to keep costs low and let him be as subversive in content as possible, movies like The Piano Teacher and Cache have a kind of dull flatness to them; but as the technology has matured along with Haneke's career, it's allowed him here in his newest films to crank out projects that are as visually stunning as they are conceptually challenging.

And make no mistake, it's another conceptually challenging one we're dealing with here in The White Ribbon, despite the surface-level costume-drama trappings of its production. Set in a village in northern Germany in the year directly before the start of World War One, there's a mystery at the heart of our story -- namely, someone is going around committing acts of violence and torture for seemingly no reason, including stretching a wire across a road so that the town's only doctor falls and injures himself, stabbing a local autistic child in the eyes and blinding him, ruining the local baron's crops so that most of the villagers end up unemployed for a good part of the year, and more seemingly senseless crimes, all the more mysterious for this being a tiny community where there are no strangers to pin it on.

Unlike Haneke's earlier Cache, this time there's definitely a culprit who's revealed by the end; and although I technically won't spoil who it is, let's say that Haneke does a lot of that spoiling himself, precisely by naming his entire movie after what seems at first to be just one small scene within it, in which a couple of the children of the village's stern Protestant minister get in trouble one day, and he forces them to wear a white ribbon around their arms for six months to remind them of Jesus's purity and innocence that they have strayed so far from. This directly informs the specific horrific crimes at the heart of the movie's plot, but more metaphorically this is a symbol for the entire milieu in which the movie takes place, whether you're talking about the village's philandering midwife, the abusive doctor she's having an affair with, the child-beating steward of the village's main estate, or the fascism-friendly baron who lords his money and power over everyone else like the ultimate carrot and stick.

Ultimately what Haneke seems to be saying in The White Ribbon with all of this is, "Anytime a person decides to arbitrarily make rules about what constitutes 'good' and 'evil,' within a chaotic universe that doesn't inherently contain such rules, then tries to force these rules onto other people whether they like them or not, of course their natural response is going to be to rebel against this arbitrary force, usually by swerving way more into the 'evil' lane than they would've if you had never tried to enforce the rules on them in the first place." And that makes perfect sense; because as we've seen in my other write-ups, Haneke has had a career-long obsession with examining the philosophy known as Nihilism, one of whose guiding principles is exactly what I just said, about how there is no such thing as a universal definition of 'right' and 'wrong' that can be arbitrarily applied to every person in every situation, and that our petty human attempts to do so is ironically what has led to most of history's greatest tragedies. Whee!

It's always a fun party with Haneke, and The White Ribbon is no exception; but for those like me with a preference for examining Haneke's messages without the distracting ultra-violent bells and whistles of his most famous projects (for example, the dreary "teens are terrible" thriller Funny Games, easily his worst movie, making it heartbreaking that it's also his most well-known), this is going to be just the ticket, a gorgeous but subtle and slow-moving film that forces you to really think about what it is that Haneke is really saying. That leaves just one more movie in what's turned out to be a really eye-opening week of the Film School Dropout challenge, Haneke's newest, last year's dysfunctional-family drama Happy Ending; my review of that will be coming tomorrow.

UPDATE: After reading other people's reviews, I realized something that I can't believe didn't occur to me before -- that by setting this in 1914, essentially the abused-turned-monstrous children being featured here are supposed to grow up and become the Nazi soldiers who committed so many crimes against humanity during World War Two. That adds a whole new layer of meaning to this film that I completely missed before, and is something good to keep in mind while watching it yourself.