The White Ribbon (R) (144 min.) — Germany's nominee for the best foreign language film Oscar is a striking cipher, in which terrible events tragically occur and are swept under the carpet. The narrator says what happened in his Bavarian village may explain what later happened to his nation. Since the setting is pre-World War I, we can deduce that's the origin of Nazism, but the deduction is too simple for Michael Haneke's austere mystery.
Haneke makes movies as riddles, usually ending without solid answers, like Funny Games and Caché, that still inspire conflicting views of what the heck happened. The White Ribbon is equally indirect, lingering on shots and conversations that may matter later, or may not. This isn't a whodunnit, or even a whydunnit, so don't expect "a-ha" moments. All that we'll learn is whatever Haneke reveals. The problem is, that's often disguised as something too languid for full attention.
A series of violent tragedies plagues the village: A doctor is hospitalized after a trip wire causes a horseback accident. An old woman falls through a rotted hayloft floor to her death. A barn catches fire, and two children are sadistically tortured off-screen. Everything circles back to the village's children, as victims and possibly assailants. They behave strangely enough to deserve such suspicion.
The village's adults are no less unsettling. The pastor (Burghart Klausner) is a stern abuser of his children. The injured doctor (Rainer Bock) spews cruelties at his dowdy, devoted lover (Susanne Lothar) and sexually assaults his daughter. The land baron (Ulrich Tukur) keeps workers in line with threats and exclusion while his wife (Ursina Lardi) has an affair. The "sins of the father" concept is constantly raised; the village's violence is obviously payback.
But by whom, and for which offenses? Haneke never tells us, which will excite his devotees as much as it frustrates others. The White Ribbon is never boring; the performances and Christian Berger's Oscar-nominated black and white cinematography ensure that. But parading such cruelty without at least a veiled moral to the story makes me wonder what thrills Haneke most, teasing viewers or repelling them.
Shown with English subtitles. B+
Steve Persall, Times film critic