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.