You may know Michael Haneke as the fiery, audience-disdaining provocateur of Funny Games – the subtitled original or the American shot-by-shot remake, no matter. And if so, you may understandably want to steer clear of further efforts by the filmmaker. After all, most sane people don't go to the movies to spend two hours getting yelled at by a crazy Austrian. Even Caché, which I actually thought was quite good, could feel awfully haughty -- like it was somehow above having a plot that's comprehensible on a literal level, without having to stretch for abstract explanations and metaphors.
The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, has been described – and, in some circles, condemned – as a "departure" for Haneke. That's true. Though the film's dogged austerity and formal precision will be familiar to cinephiles, The White Ribbon features an honest-to-goodness story, one that works on its own terms and as a typically cynical allegory. Armed with a plot, Haneke's talents and style prove richly rewarding. This is one of the year's best films: a tense, foreboding creeper with devastating insight into human nature and why ordinary people sometimes do (or acquiesce to) some very bad things.