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Iniquity, enmity, mystery seep through the pores of this film. Any child's supposed misdemeanor is punished by the harshest beatings. The doctor has sexually predatory designs on his young daughter, and is unsparingly sour to the village midwife, his assistant since his wife's death and his longtime mistress. One night she tries to arouse him and fails; and in a searing exchange that could have come from a Strindberg play, he catalogues the things he hates about her: she's messy, ugly, has bad breath. "My God, why don't you just die!" She strikes back by saying, "I have two retarded children, Karli and you and you are the more troublesome."
Not every scene emphasizes the dangers of repressive patriarchy and a draconian Protestantism. Bad men can do good things. The doctor certainly seems efficient and caring in his practice. The pastor, also a widower, has wisdom as well as stern religious bromides to offer his children. When his younger son finds a wounded bird, the preacher gently tells the boy, "You must be father and mother to it, and then set it free." Later, when the man's pet parakeet was killed, the lad offers him the bird he has nursed back to health, because "You've been so sad since Peepsie died." The one pure relationship in The White Ribbon is between the teacher and Eva, eldest of the farmer's eight children. Their shy, sweet courtship is a series of sunrays in a troubled landscape; and the two actors, Friedel and the angelic Leonie Benesch, give their scenes emotional weight and buoyancy. (See the top 10 Cannes Film Festival movies of all time.)
Days of Wrath
One of the movie's pleasures is the attention to physical and behavioral detail that Haneke lavishes on the town and its inhabitants. These are living, complicated people in a palpably real place. The village recalls the small-town settings in films by the most serene and searching of the old masters Carl-Theodor Dreyer's Day of Wrath, Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light and with the same use of luminous black-and-white that gives Bergman's film the look of a precious lithograph. The monochrome shadings of the interiors (from cinematographer Christian Berger) are so subtle that when the film cuts to a bright outdoor scene the contrast is almost blinding.
Some critics here have found the movie not blinding but hard to watch, so rigorous is its unmoving camera and its apparently synoptic misanthropy. Todd McCarthy, who with his Variety colleagues produces the smartest, most comprehensive reviews of the big Cannes banquet, detects "a medicinal quality" that makes The White Ribbon "a difficult film to entirely embrace." Yet for this viewer, the movie reveals a passionate if daunting humanism, and embraces intense emotion. In many scenes, the village children are so desperate to please their inquisitorial parents that they can't keep tears from running down their cheeks. Their tears are an expression sometimes of their fear of being punished, at other times of a sense of communal dread as when one of the steward's daughters dreams that harm will come to Karli then a clutch of guilt when the vision comes true.
The movie appears to be a mystery: Who committed these horrible acts, and how will the perpetrator be unmasked? Haneke doesn't have a pat answer for that which shouldn't surprise. Many thought that Caché weaseled out of explaining whodunit. Yet the final shot does reveal the crucial clue to that film's mystery. In The White Ribbon, the last, long shot shows all the villagers, except for the teacher and Eva, filing into church for Sunday service; the pastor doesn't move to the altar but sits in a pew. As the scene slowly fades out, the realization dawns that Haneke has created a group portrait of the guilty, like a photo of the Nazi high command at the Nuremberg trials. This is truly a village of the damned.
On Sunday evening the Cannes jury, which this year is headed by Huppert, will announce its awards for the 62nd festival. For me, with this austerely told, severely enthralling masterwork, Cannes has found its Palme d'Or.