Still, its palpable atmosphere and methodic pacing yield countless small rewards. There's a simple craftsmanship to Christian Berger's crisp black and white photography that lends the rural setting a muted authenticity, and Haneke draws humble, earnest performances from his cast that transcend the coarseness of his plot. The film is set in Germany just before the onset of the first World War, and Haneke paints the rural village of Eichwald as a crucible for guilt and cruelty amidst a series of malicious and unresolved crimes that turn the town against itself.
The film boasts an impressive recreation of 1913 Germany on an aesthetic level, but Haneke's modern sensibility sometimes spoils the illusion that "The White Ribbon" is classic filmmaking. For one, his poor use of voiceover sticks out like a sore thumb. It feels pointlessly neurosurgical for him to dictate the plot to the level of transcribing what has, is, and will happen in narration, especially when his characters and images speak so strongly for themselves. Secondly, his film has an off-putting frankness exorcised by several harsh characters that are so staunchly unpleasant and 2010-era transgressive that they seem misplaced in a period drama and even now feel hyperbolic. From the widower doctor who sexually abuses his daughter to the anonymous pummeling of a retarded child, Haneke paints his Hell in broad strokes.
Mostly, however, "The White Ribbon" plays like a mix of moody whodunit and bleak parable, which unfortunately never quite add up to more than the sum of their parts. There have been better films about the suffering we inflict on one another, just one being Lars von Trier's controversial "Antichrist," which is certainly no more subtle, but impressed me at least with the emotional gravity it wields. The bleakness of Haneke's film feels forced and dishonest by comparison, shoehorned into every corner of Eichwald under the auspice of a greater looming threat. That Haneke never reveals the culprit of the crimes is, of course, the point, but it leaves the finished film feeling slightly unhinged.
What Haneke does achieve is a gorgeous, thoughtful, and well-paced mystery that's occasionally too cold and enigmatic for its own good. He plays with powerful concepts that he never quite tames, and they make their hurried dens in the wrong places as a result. "The White Ribbon" is absolutely uncompromising in its refusal to defer to audience expectation, even at its own expense in delivering a rounded narrative. On a technical level, its execution is all but flawless, but its content is sure to polarize those viewers who submit themselves to Haneke's bitter meditation on malice, and who probably won't know how to feel when it fades out.
It's one they’ll have to sit on.