One of the great reminders of why movies still carry the cultural weight that they have for over a century happened in mid-January, when Roger Ebert had a grand epiphany: He believed he had figured out, five years after its release, the meaning of Michael Haneke's labyrinthine thriller Caché. Not in a vague thematic sense, either: Ebert posited that the very key to unlocking the film ' which provided no easy answers as to its plot ' lies in a single frame at 20 minutes, 39 seconds.
The Internet message boards lit up ' does he mean the PAL or NTSC disc? I see something, but my resolution isn't hi-def enough! ' and the race was on to decipher Ebert's cryptic clues to finding the cryptic clues within the frame.
This is Haneke's power as a filmmaker in pulsing action. If you're willing to trust him and believe that his cinematic puzzles are worth keeping in your head for as long as it takes (years, in some cases) for something to click, then the experience is like no other in modern film. If you possess the stamina to endure the torment he throws your way, and don't go in with a mindset that ends with folded-armed petulance ('Where's the funny?â?� asked a real, irritated commenter in response to Haneke's brutal 1997 ethics question Funny Games), then you will be rewarded.
I've already spent half of my allotted space here discussing the Haneke experience for a reason: The less you know about his latest, last year's Palme d'Or winner The White Ribbon, the better your time at the movies will be. In brief: An older schoolteacher recounts the strange events that took place in a small German village in the early 1900s, where he lived and worked. The puritanical hierarchy and self-contained system provides impenetrable cover for someone ' or many people ' who is committing mysterious atrocities on certain townfolk. In one case, a foreboding warning note is left; in another, the punishment bears traditional symbolism. One instance of attempted murder doesn't even make clear who the intended target could have possibly been ' it's too random to be pointed at anyone, but too deliberate to be anything else.
The town panics, briefly, but life goes on, which might be the most horrific of all the ideas within The White Ribbon: The search for meaning amidst death is inherently self-serving. Sometimes the villain isn't caught. Sometimes you have to continue living in a village full of suspects.
As with all of Haneke's films, the only insight to be had is internal; your reactions and thoughts say more about yourself than the film. In my case, I heard others mention the death of a child as a pivotal plot point. I can't recall that death for the life of me. I know I didn't fall asleep or leave the room once, so what does that say about my internal filter? Also, the pre-World War I setting, the Butch Cassidy-esque use of a bicycle to represent creeping, shaky modernity and the crumbling state of the village's nationalistic structure brought to my mind the Belle Époque and the works of Thomas Pynchon, though I'm not familiar with either of those things enough to fully understand why they came to mind. But I know I want to find out.
I'll let you know in five years or so what comes of it.