The German Expressionism style of filmmaking reached its peak during World War I. The two most famous examples of the era were Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” All German Expressionist films have two things in common: they take place in worlds that defy logic, realism, light and even physics. And, according to film theorist Sigfried Kracauer, they foretell the rise of Nazi Germany.

“The White Ribbon”

At the Michigan
Sony Pictures Classics

Unlike the impossible geometry of the world in “Caligari,” Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon,” last year’s winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is set against a landscape that could have very well existed in the Weimar Republic; in fact, it’s idyllic. It’s a lovely little village where trees sway gently in the spring and roads are caked in pure white snow in the winter. It’s the people who live there who are the Expressionist nightmares.

Because here in Eichwald, everyone is a monster. Fathers beat their children, sometimes in the name of discipline, sometimes as a gross exercise of power. Husbands beat their wives, sometimes out of anger, sometimes out of boredom. And the wickedness of the village is only escalating. The only adult with a discernible moral compass is our narrator and guide, the wimpy schoolteacher (newcomer Christian Friedel), a man helpless, if not useless, in his investigation of the village’s recent atrocities committed by an unknown malevolence.

Children are a mercurial force in storytelling. When they are harmed, their attacker is automatically vilified. When they are the iniquitous ones, they are more dangerous than any adult they encounter. Above all, when their performances exceed those of their grown-up costars, they can haunt the audience in a way that an older actor never could.

“The White Ribbon” employs its children in all three forms. While the film’s adults are impenetrable masks of cruelty save the young teacher, its kids are multidimensional. They accept their corporal punishments with clasped fingers and pious smiles. Their faces morph from filial sorrow to vindictive rage in a blink. They express a strange and pressing desire to visit the oft-injured townsfolk.

Scariest of all is to know what these children will become. We see them in their larval stage, before they wield any influence and exert it in horrific ways. Their parents are the devils for now, but history will demonstrate soon enough that the little ones learn from Mom and Dad and devolve through yet newer and crueler methods. Plenty of films have featured Nazis; only Haneke dares to examine how they were made.

A film such as this, fueled by hatred, has to reflect that vitriol in its camera’s frame. Images are stark, barren; movement is scarce. “The White Ribbon” was nominated for Best Cinematography in addition to its Foreign Language Film nod, and rightfully so. Every shot from cinematographer Christian Berger (“Caché”) is as perfectly bleak, joyless and hopeless as Haneke could have crafted. His wizardry is in taking the perfectly pleasant aesthetic of a little German village dotted with wooden houses, horse-drawn carriages and bales of hay beside a barn and transforming it into the gates of Hell.

The film is not satisfying in the traditional sense to which we are accustomed — “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy reclaims girl” should never be expected from perpetual downer Haneke. “The White Ribbon” is not about closure or circularity. It’s not about stumbling across a crime scene and tracking down the culprit. It’s about the lessons taught by a generation in power to its children, and those are seldom as simple as we’d like them to be. It might not provide any answers, but “The White Ribbon” asks questions brilliantly.

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