Be warned. Michael Haneke wants to hurt you.
At his best, the director does his damage with the light, graceful touch of a seasoned psychopath, the kind that kills and kills and never gets caught. In The Piano Teacher (2002), for instance, easily his best movie, Haneke barely seems to lift a finger. But he doesn’t need to; the white hot hurt gushes from Isabelle Huppert’s every clench. In Cache (2005), his scalpel carves blood from even the most innocuous objects and situations. For the duration of the movie, a found VHS tape, containing nothing more alarming than continuous footage of a single house, becomes the most sinister object imaginable. In these films, Haneke at his best, the evil is always there, but you’ll never see it coming.
At his worst, Haneke resembles Lars von Trier at his worst. Taken together, they can be the Bonnie and Clyde of world cinema, except not nearly as pretty as Warren and Faye and of course a lot less fun. Accent on a lot less fun.
With Quentin Tarantino out there, sometimes it’s easy to forget that killing people is really a mean business, and not just for the dead. Surviving, it turns out, is rather painful too, and, as Haneke portrays it in The White Ribbon, unendingly so. Parents are cruel to children and children are cruel to birds and onward down the list like a kind of gruesome Rube Goldberg machine of mean Germans. Is it any surprise then that the children of these people will become Nazis?
No. But that’s the point. As they layer, the bucolic crimes and criminals that make up The White Ribbon gain in political significance, until Haneke (at his best), without uttering a single pedantic word, is able to offer up a way of comprehending the incomprehensible tragedies that lay ahead. It’s what makes the film so fascinating. But is anyone surprised?
From shot one, we know we’re going down hard. After shot one hundred and one, we still know it. So why should it take so long to get there? By the time I started asking myself this question, I knew I was in von Trier country, and then I had that vision of Haneke and von Trier as Warren and Faye and that was the end of that.