Michael Haneke frames the rise of German fascism. By BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

MICHAEL HANEKE’s films work like bed bugs, hidden away, causing discomfort months later from when they were first introduced. His latest, deeply unsettling film was a last-minute addition to the New Zealand International Film Festival programme, and all I can say is Thank God for that. And while it certainly felt odd walking into a multiplex – a necessary detour as one the first countries to see the film since it won the Palme d’Or – this austere examination of the roots of German fascism looks anything but dour with its sumptuous digital projection. Haneke’s films are so emotionally glacial that they can alienate viewers, however those who share Haneke’s pessimism will find plenty to savour. And those already attuned to Haneke’s worldview will add The White Ribbon to the burgeoning list of great films by this Austrian master, that haunt well after they have been seen.

The White Ribbon focuses on a German village in the days before World War One. Strange accidents are happening in the village, which provokes suspicion, mistrust and, further accidents. Haneke creates a compellingly rich village, and through his characters, expertly charts the differences between classes, genders, ages, and family statuses. Haneke even throws in a convincing love story based on mutual respect and trust, an antidote to the fog that sinks the village.

Social theorists have talked about crime being ‘necessary’ to maintain societal solidarity (e.g. crime helps define our social boundaries by our mutually expressed outrage towards particular kinds of behaviour). And in Haneke’s film, this is precisely what occurs within the village – they come together following the particular crimes occurring, and attempt to define their behaviour accordingly. However, Haneke shows a society which is unwilling to countenance where the behaviour truly comes from, which in effect, leads to the behaviour being condoned. And it’s not invoking Godwin’s Law (given the film’s setting) to state that it’s hard not to see a resulting social climate from which the Nazis arose.

Haneke also wisely chooses not to define the roots of fascism simplistically. Given fascism actually has quite a contentious definition, Haneke presents many of the different strands that have been argued to constitute fascism: sexual repression, religious conformity, rigorous discipline, patriarchal power, unequal power structures, scapegoat-ing. While Haneke so convincingly throws us into its pre-World War One setting, he also lucidly makes parallels to contemporary society. His films have often been about the darkness that bubbles under so-called normality, and the tenuous concepts of family, order and morality.

Despite the lush digital projection, The White Ribbon feels less filmic than some of his other work. Perhaps, it is so sealed (both in terms of its narrative and formal qualities) that it feels almost like well-crafted Gothic television or a mini-series, and doesn’t resonate as much as a film like Hidden. Indeed, Haneke intended The White Ribbon to be a mini-series, which might explain its conservative formal style, especially after the formal brilliance of some of his best work. But this is a minor quibble, and The White Ribbon confirms Haneke’s stature as one of contemporary cinema’s most provocative and insightful commentators.