The White Ribbon Directed by Michael Haneke The Most Dangerous Man in America Directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith An opaque effort from Michael Haneke; a tell-all from the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers.

Go Down in Mystery: Haneke’s latest wallows in willful obscurity.

Michael Haneke can be an exasperating filmmaker. Pretentious, too. In 2008, the German writer-director gave us the repellent Funny Games, a hyperviolent English-language remake of his own movie. Before that came Caché, an interesting if slow-paced thriller with a vague ending that could be maddening to viewers who expect answers out of their whodunits. Haneke’s latest, The White Ribbon, more closely resembles the latter. But although it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, its murky storyline, phalanx of hard-to-distinguish characters, and glacial pace leaves only the impression that both Haneke and the Academy can do better.

The film takes place in 1913 Germany and is narrated by a timid village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel). He begins by noting that he’s not sure that the story he’s about the tell is entirely true, a detail that suggests Haneke intends the film as parable. Then the bucket spills: First, a doctor (Ranier Bock) is injured when the horse he’s riding trips over a wire whose placement and quick disappearance no one is willing to explain. Soon after, the wife of a farmer dies by falling through the rotting floorboards of the estate of the local baron (Urlich Tukur). The baron’s young son is tortured, a teenage girl is molested by her father, a pastor (Burghart Klaubner) beats his kids for arriving late for dinner. A bird belonging to the pastor is killed and left on his desk, scissors still in its body.

There are more “accidents” and ugly incidents that occur during The White Ribbon’s nearly two and a half hours, most apparently meant as punishment for various sins. Except in the cases where an elder is dishing out the discipline—e.g., the pastor—the perpetrators are never revealed. It’s strongly hinted that the kinda-creepy village children are to blame, but nearly all characters have festering anger and motives. When a girl asks the schoolteacher, “Sir, do dreams come true?”, you know she doesn’t mean it in the Disney sense.

And in any case, you’ll never discover the truth. This open-endedness (even the final scene is reminiscent of Caché’s) might be satisfying if the rest of the story didn’t meander so messily. Or if the characters, the women and girls in dark dresses and fierce buns, were fewer and better developed. Of the cast, Klaubner and Bock stand out, the former for the hypocrisy behind his angelic front and the latter for his slowly revealed sleaziness. The rest will distract you as you try to place them among the many families.

The White Ribbon is presented in black and white, with Haneke filming a few scenes almost completely in the dark. The decision does reflect the puritanism of the village but is also maddening when you can’t see what’s going on. But even if every scene were presented clear as day, it’s likely you wouldn’t always know what’s going on, anyway—and eventually won’t care.

The Most Dangerous Man in America Directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith

Daniel Ellsberg was solely responsible for persuading President Lyndon B. Johnson to start a bombing campaign in Vietnam—and has spent the bulk of his post-government life regretting it. The Most Dangerous Man in America, another Oscar nominee, is co-directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s adaptation of a pair of Ellsberg’s books detailing how he became known as the documentary’s title, courtesy of Henry Kissinger.

Most viewers will already know the general story of the “Pentagon Papers,” the 7,000 pages of top-secret federal documents that proved the United States was at war with Vietnam under false pretenses. These papers were leaked to 17 newspapers by the very person who helped greenlight our country’s escalation of force.

Ellsberg, who worked under Robert McNamara, then the secretary of defense, is a frequent commentator in the film and says he leaked the papers because his conscience couldn’t take the burden anymore. He calls the initial research he gave to Johnson “the most shameful episode of my life.” And as the war dragged on and casualties skyrocketed, he saw the offensive as “unjustified homicide, and I couldn’t see the difference between that and murder. And murder had to be stopped.”

The Most Dangerous Man in America offers extensive detail on Ellsberg’s career and the circumstances that led him to his career suicide. It’s a history lesson, to be sure, but the film’s eloquent, personable, and still-sharp namesake makes it go down smooth. There’s plenty of period footage, too, which makes the directors’ decision to re-create some events—dramatic photocopying! hurried typing with coffee and cigarette at the writer’s side!—an odd if easily dismissible distraction. (A few animated scenes, though, are less forgivable.)

What really makes The Most Dangerous Man in America so gripping, though, is its obvious current-day relevance. Substitute “Iraq” for “Vietnam” and the basic facts are the same. There’s a clip of Johnson at a press conference: “I don’t want a man in here going home thinkin’ otherwise. We are going to win.” It’s all very cowboy, and very depressing. (And it’s no surprise that Ellsberg is now involved in antiwar rallies; at one point, we see him arrested during a peaceful protest.) Besides being informative, absorbing, and even a bit thrilling, the documentary leaves you with a sense of hope—which, these days, might be more important than its lessons.

Our Readers Say

The reviewer is very dismissive towards Haneke's movie, but with hardly any justification. She finds the movie at fault for its "glacial-pace" or "vague ending" or being "too dark". If Olszewski is looking for an "action-packed" movie with "closure" and "vivid colors," I suggest she go and see Avatar.
Haneke is not a sloppy film maker. What I caught was when he had his narrator make such a blatant error in his telling of the morning after the harvest festival (Thanksgiving feast). The night of the festival after the Barron's son Sigi had gone missing than found bound and badly beaten. The baron unjustly fired Eva the nanny and put her out on the street that night. She spent it in the school house with the narrator--school teacher until he could escort her back to her home village in the morning and help explain what happened to her parents. Here is an exact transcript of the subtitles of his narration from the scene on the morning after the harvest festival:
"The next day after school I went to the estate to inquire about Sigi’s health and to intercede for Eva’s reinstatement. I was told the Baroness had left that morning with her children. Reluctantly, the steward lent me a carriage to take Eva home. As we left the village, we crossed the Doctor. A few days after the Thanksgiving feast, Rudolph, his four-year-old son, had suddenly disappeared. This upset everyone in view of the previous events. The boy was finally found on the main road, scantily dressed for a trip, walking eagerly toward the town. When asked where he was going, he said he wanted to visit his father. He fought tooth and nail against being taken home. The Doctor was told about this, and due to be released soon anyway, he decided to cut short his stay at the hospital." Is it just me that finds it odd a "few days" somehow slipped in there during the night? Or did Eva shack up with him for a few days before he went to the steward to borrow a carriage and go inquire about Sigi's health? I find it unlikely the pious 17 year old character Eva would stay a few days with the 31 year old school teacher whom obviously displays an open attraction to her. The start of the film the narrator-school teacher claims he doesn't know if all of the story he is about to tell is true.So Haneke wants a senile old man explaining these events and making them seem obscure and unreliable for a reason. I think Haneke is sticking it to modern day historians with this film. History books are constantly re-written and changed...and not always for the better. That's what I got from The White Ribbon.

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