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Werner Herzog not withstanding, Austro-German director Michael Haneke may be the greatest active cinematic export from the cinematically rich sister countries. A perennial favorite on the European film festival circuit and a critical darling, Haneke remains a provocateur of the highest degree, a talent with a rapidly growing canon of meticulous, rich films.
Which isn't to say that his movies are pleasant or even enjoyable. Yes, they're masterful, a synthesis of Pasolini and Hitchcock, but often so profoundly disturbing (and, some would argue, disturbingly profound) that it takes serious deliberation to so much as consider a second viewing. He's the mind behind staples of the modern thriller, remarkably with the paranoid, perplexing “Cache” (2005) and the intensely unsettling “Funny Games” (1997). (The latter, an “A Clockwork Orange” for the '90s, was remade, shot for shot by Haneke, for an American release in 2005.)
Yet with “The White Ribbon,” Haneke's found a way to retain his psychological severity through understatement and minimalism without resorting to shock value. In the process, he's made not only the greatest, most mature film of his career, but the winner of Cannes' Palme D'Or, the frontrunner for the Academy's Best Foreign Picture award and the greatest, most engaging release since “There Will Be Blood.”
The film takes place in a feudal, oppressively Protestant village in Germany on the brink of World War I, when the townspeople's familiar monotony is splintered by seemingly random acts of proto-terrorism. Truth be told, the less knowledge you have going into the movie, the more you'll take out; the plot is completely secondary to the humanist questions in the subtext. Those that loom the largest are the effects of social stagnation, the nature of hypocrisy and the origins of fascism.
Shot in black and white, the film's pacing is both languid and tense — even hypnotic at times. It's no secret that “The White Ribbon” as a whole has much to owe to iconic pieces by Bergman and Dreyer but, astonishingly (and exhilaratingly), it can stand tall beside some of the masters' greatest works. This movie looks and feels like a classic because it is one.
— John Tarpley