It has to be said that the films of Austrian director Michael Haneke are not to everyone’s taste. He would probably be perfectly happy with that as he is not trying to please audiences so much as address the world with as much artistic truth as possible. He is certainly not going unnoticed as, from small beginnings, he is now being consistently praised by art movie critics and showered with festival prizes. (The White Ribbon received the Palme D’Or at the 2009 Cannes Festival).

His latest effort is a cross between Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf and John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, but it is entirely original in its way. Shot in stark and sometimes ravishing black and white it tells the story of a remote German village around the time of 1914. The village is still strongly hierarchical with the stern Baron in his big family estate dominating both physically and psychologically. Therefore when, at the beginning, the village Doctor suffers a bizarre riding accident, and we learn that it was caused by a deliberately placed trip wire, we know that something is going terribly wrong. Slowly more and more ‘incidents’; occur – sometimes with escalating brutality – and we sense that the established order is under attack. This has been one of Haneke’s themes for a while. Haneke is almost obsessed with showing us that the bourgeois exterior is riven with suppressed violence.

If you read this ‘politically’ it is because their position at the top calls forth the sometimes murderous resentment of the powerless. If one thinks back to his film Hidden, the main feeling for the bourgeoisie is a malaise, a profound but unmanageable sense of unease that never leaves them, and which communicates itself to us the audience with insidious and creepy urgency.

In The White Ribbon Haneke revisits another version of the revenge of the powerless, by suggesting that the young will also take revenge upon the old. The institutionalised brutalising of the young (as in ritualistic parental punishment) seems to twist the values of all involved and sow the seeds for viciousness on a national scale. In Leonard Proxauf (who plays the young lead role of Martin) Haneke has found another wonderful face to illustrate a blank-but-not-fully mad evil. The long held shots of Proxauf’s thoughtful troubling face as he is being punished are eloquent indeed.

This trope of the young declaring war on the old (C/F his almost unwatchably cruel Funny Games) cues us that an irreversible moral break down has already occurred (think for example of the shock value of the children dobbing in their parents to the state in Orwell’s 1984). But here there is no organised ideology that would explain why people are like this (although, as an Austrian, Haneke is fully aware of the long shadow of what happened in Germany in the 1930’s).

If all this sounds a rather cerebral take on Haneke, one could point out that he deliberately makes the kind of films that drag you into this territory. It is not always possible to say exactly what his films are ‘about’, or rather, when you have done describing the look and atmosphere, there is still a feeling that you have not successfully communicated their effect.
Obviously this is not everyone’s cup of tea, and you do find yourself wondering what Haneke is like when he is on holiday with the kids or in the supermarket. However, he has obviously and deservedly ‘arrived’ There is a seriousness in Haneke not to be found easily elsewhere. There is a moral weight in his films which, if it doesn’t crush you, will certainly teach you something. Real art teaches without being merely didactic, and Haneke’s vision is hard to shake off. In its way, it is another creepy masterwork.

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