After viewing Michael Haneke’s masterpiece The White Ribbon, I came to the conclusion that Haneke is my favorite director of the past decade. From 2001’s The Piano Teacher on he’s consistently proven himself not only as a filmmaker merely to watch, but as a director to argue about akin to Lars von Trier and Roman Polanski (before the cinematic debate turned personal). Like von Trier, Haneke trains his cold lens on people desperate to make order out of mayhem. And in a way, Haneke is an anthropological Polanski, forever concerned with the evil we can’t see, with that which lies beyond the frame. He wants us to hear the words left out of the script, to feel the heaviness of absence—to ponder that which is missing.
Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner is set in northern Germany just before WWI changes the lives of the tale’s very Protestant villagers forever. The stock characters include a nerdy narrator schoolteacher, a rich baron, a strict pastor, a sadistic doctor, a suffering midwife, poor tenant farmers and—most importantly—the offspring of these varied human sources who all suffer equally and painfully. Beginning with the doctor’s bad fall from a horse that trips over a wire strung nefariously between two trees, a string of mysterious “accidents” occur that are each more disturbing and bizarre than the last. All the while these possible crimes go halfheartedly investigated since no one ever seems to have seen or heard anything (and no good religious person would dare speak evil anyway). In other words, witnesses are never present because they don’t want to be. These townsfolk are terrified to look in the mirror and maybe see a monster staring back.
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