Das Weiße Band (image from official website)
"Strange events happen in a small village in northern Germany..." as one capsule review has it, would make you think that Michael Haneke's Das Weiße Band (The White Ribbon in international release) is another M. Night Shyamalan clone. No disrespect to Mr. S., but this is anything but a German-language "The Village." Haneke, you see, has won the Cannes Golden Palm for his efforts.
And those efforts are considerable. Haneke, talking to Le Soir's Fabienne Bradfer, said that he's wanted to make this film for the last ten years, but he's never had enough money until his 2005 French suspense hit Caché. Think of Caché and its atmosphere of intermittent tension, unexplained incidents, and moments of high emotion and you will get a sense of The White Ribbon's Weltanschauung.
The pre-World War I setting, rendered in a black-and-white that is stunning for its clarity even when illuminated by a candle, is lovingly rendered, though this is not, repeat not, a period costume drama. The choice of B&W seems natural, for it helps, along with all those females with their hair pulled back in tight buns, seemingly from the age of five, to recreate the atmosphere of a society living the last months of an era that we know now only from rare documentary footage. Just as the (controversial) use of color in the recent WW II French documentary series Apocalypse made 70 year old footage of people come alive, the use of B&W in Das Weiße Band "helps the viewer enter the film" as Haneke says.
I won't go into those "strange events" since I hate it when reviewers tell you the plot line. But I will say this: whoever still harbors illusions of rural society as an idyllic haven from the violence of the city may find The White Ribbon a disturbing revelation. But if Haneke's film is a metaphor for the latent violence in humanity - even amongst its youngest members - then there are plenty of harbingers of the horrors to come when the little terrors grow up to be the adults of the Third Reich.
An American GI performing occupation/de-Nazification duties in postwar Germany once said that he used to be incapable of looking at people without his first thought being "I wonder what s/he did during the war." As you watch Haneke's film, you know that the 20th century's World Wars (separated by barely a generation) are looming ahead, and you find yourself wondering "what will little Martin be up to 20 years hence?"
This is what Haneke wants us to do: "I ask questions... [and I ask myself] what can I do to give the greatest freedom to the audience?" Part of that freedom is not being given tidy endings, or explanations for what we have just watched for the last 144 minutes, riveted to our seats. But that's the way the villagers would want it too. The omerta that reigns over the pristine square and well-tended fields hides many secrets, and the onset of the war that ended the barony, toppled the Kaiser, and set the seeds for the even greater slaughter of World War II comes - I almost hate to say it - as a relief.
The villagers might just say that it allowed them to change the subject, away from their obsessions over those "strange events." Those of us who see The White Ribbon might not shake its effect so easily.