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January 10, 2010

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Tragedy of a hamlet in horror

MICHAEL Haneke's "The White Ribbon" is a masterpiece, but a demanding one.

The Austrian writer-director has crafted a gorgeously gloomy parable exploring the origins of hatred, malice and communal barbarity, the sort of madness of the masses that would explode in Germany a generation later.

"The White Ribbon" makes squeamish voyeurs of viewers as they watch a small German hamlet come unhinged amid unexplained violence and tragedy as World War I approaches.

The words dour and disturbing characterize Haneke's films which include "The Piano Teacher," "Hidden," "Time of the Wolf" and "Funny Games," which he remade in English with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth two years ago.

"The White Ribbon" is grim even by Haneke's standards, a meticulously composed production whose exquisite black-and-white images by cinematographer Christian Berger help create the illusion of a window in time looking back to the early 20th century.

Winner of the top prize, the Palme d'Or, in Cannes last year, it moves with stately melancholy as a local school teacher (Christian Friedel as an in-the-flesh young man, Ernst Jacobi providing his voice-over narration as an old man) recalls the strange happenings that begin in summer 1913. Some evildoer sets a wire that trips the horse of the town doctor (Rainer Bock), who is gravely injured.

Children vanish

A farmer's wife mysteriously falls to her death. A cabbage field is ravaged, a building is torched, children vanish and are found bound, beaten or mutilated.

While the townsfolk fret over these crimes and misdemeanors, they continue living lives that emphasize cruelty over compassion.

The one light of hope is the pure and taintless love that grows between the teacher and a young nanny (Leonie Benesch).

The faces of the townsfolk are striking, particularly the children's. Haneke's casting crew met with about 7,000 children, choosing faces that look as though they could be staring out of grainy photos from the era.

The town's adults are nameless, Haneke identifying them only by their trade or position.

Only the young daughters and sons have names, children reared in severe, even tyrannical devotion to puritan preaching that their lustful, abusive parents fail to follow; children who will emerge from this incubator of malevolence as the generation unleashing the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

These children already may have put that inhumanity into practice. The film hints that the young ones could be responsible for the town's terrible misdeeds, though Haneke never says for sure as he's not the sort of storyteller to make things easy on his audience.

Our own times are tough, and "The White Ribbon" is anything but slaphappy Hollywood escapism. It's an eminently worthwhile journey if you're up for the challenge, though.

And hey, a story this solemn, this depressing, just might remind you that no matter how hard things are now, it could be worse.


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