When you watch the films of Austrian director Michael Haneke, you're not so much looking at a screen as gazing into a mirror, and a pretty forbidding one. You the viewer, with your cultural assumptions, are always Haneke's real focus, the target of his critique. You're not merely involved in the story but implicated. It's a bit like finding yourself the subject of a police investigation
So his new film ought, in theory, to offer us some relief from Haneke's punishing scrutiny. This year's Palme d'Or winner in Cannes, The White Ribbon is a film about another time and (unless you're German) another place. Set in 1913, it is partly a philosophical detective story, partly an archaeology of modern German society, examining a generation of children who, two decades on, would prove a very baleful force indeed.
Haneke's setting is a village where order seems absolute, timeless and unquestioned. Authority is embodied by the local baron (Ulrich Tukur) and enforced morally by the pastor (Burghart Klaussner). There are farm workers who know their place, and an educated bourgeoisie that keeps the social wheels turning: teacher, doctor, midwife, identified only by their functions.
The story begins with a dramatic event: the village doctor is riding home when a concealed wire sends him and his horse flying. It's the first of several ominous incidents that suggest cracks opening up in this small world: a worker is killed, a fire breaks out, a child goes missing .... Someone is responsible but, this being a Haneke film, we are invited to read these happenings as symbolic – as obscure symptoms of a malaise that the characters cannot perceive, bound as they are by the assumptions of a society blindly staggering towards extinction.
In one sense, it seems clear what's going on: the village children, eerily impassive, are surely involved, but how and why? Meanwhile, the adult order is shown to be moribund and corrupt. In a deeply disturbing scene, the doctor (Rainer Bock) calmly plies his mistress (Haneke regular Susanne Lothar) with humiliations. The pastor's house particularly is the domain of repression. When his children misbehave they must wear a shaming white ribbon to remind them of innocence. Yet adult frailty runs the gamut from hypocrisy to certain vices that, to be honest, make you feel that Haneke is making his point a little too bluntly.
Superbly and sparely acted, The White Ribbon is a remarkable achievement. It reads like a sprawling modernist novel with its extensive cast, dense narrative and systematic refusal to answer questions. Shot in black and white by Christian Berger, its comprehensively detailed evocation is modelled on the photography of August Sander, the great chronicler of early 20th-century Germany. Every aspect of the world re-created feels intensely real, from the sunlit fields to the severe parlours, from the farmers' felt hats to the actors' authentic-looking period physiognomies. But it's an enclosed, stifling universe: interiors and landscapes are shot to look unnaturally static, the drama unfolding in a frozen, almost embalmed universe.
There is, unusually for Haneke, a degree of lightness, even hope, notably embodied by the young teacher (Christian Friedel), a moon-faced, ineffectual figure who narrates the story retrospectively, as an old man. The film's gentler aspects derive from his shy courtship of a young governess (Leonie Benesch).
But if there's a question mark sewn into the film's fabric, it appears in the teacher's opening voice-over, as he introduces the tale that he has pieced together years later, and that he feels will "clarify" subsequent events. In other words, expect an unreliable narrative, distorted by retrospect.
But does this enigmatic chronicle really clarify later history? To say that The White Ribbon offers an explanatory account of the origins of Nazism would surely be reductive. It's up to us to decide what the film is about, or what speculative direction it's prompt-ing us in. But I'm not convinced that, for all its suggestive intricacy, it quite yields the depths that it promises.
Even so, it's hard not to be fascinated by the loose ends of this Ribbon. For example, besides the badge of shame imposed on the children, could the "weisse Band" of the German title also be the bandage wrapped, late in the film, around the eyes of an injured child? A key theme is blindness: the society portrayed is ruinously unaware of its own imminent collapse, and here Haneke, as usual, puts us on the spot. Hindsight might allow us to feel superior to these people who can't see the 20th century coming. But Haneke surely wants us to ask ourselves whether we're really all that clear-sighted about our own historical moment.
If, ultimately, I find The White Ribbon hard to embrace with undiluted enthusiasm, it's because of its very mastery, which can make Haneke's films feel as airless as the worlds he depicts. His severity and formal perfectionism are at once Olympian and oddly old-fashioned: for a director often considered something of an avant-gardist, Haneke's artistic confidence and philosophical authority make him something like the Tolstoy of contemporary art cinema. But without doubt The White Ribbon is one of the few really serious and adult films of this year.
One has to concede, however reluctantly, that it is a masterpiece – although my worry is that that is precisely what Haneke intends it to be.
The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke, 144 mins, 15Reuse content