There are so many words you could use to describe the work of Michael Haneke: bold, provocative, cruel, cold, intellectual, confusing, cryptic, frustrating, alienating, disturbing, exhilarating. He's a bit of a wild boy like that. There's one word that not only would I never have used, I'd have denied the possibility I might ever feel obliged to, yet here we are: The White Ribbon, Haneke's most "mannered" film yet. Mannered, and "handsome". Those are the two words I walked away from the film rolling around in my head, and it's not much of a surprise that the film won the director his first Palme d'Or and Academy Award nomination: it has the glossy, respectably artistic feeling of a movie designed to win awards, though by all means Haneke's approach to "awards-bait" is of a wholly different register than e.g. Clint Eastwood or Ron Howard's. I shouldn't want to call The White Ribbon his "worst" movie, having seen very little of his early work and recalling too well that Funny Games U.S. sits in the corner grinning like a smug, ugly toad, but at any rate it's the first film of his that I've walked away from without feeling all that intellectually engaged - or even emotionally bothered - by what I'd just seen.

What I called mannered, I suppose Haneke would prefer to call austere: and there is certainly a wintry severity to most of the film, which stands (like many of the director's films) at a remove from the emotions of the characters, judging them with the resolute dispassion of a deist's god. Set in a small German village in the year or two before the outbreak of World War I, The White Ribbon looks to analyse the religious harshness and socially amiable hypocrisy, and so on and so forth; the director has called this his inquiry into the origins of Nazism, and while it's rather hard to read that into the movie without knowing it's there in advance, it's certainly not as facile a prism through which to view the film as it could be. The "petty small town as a metaphor for fascism" story has been around for a while, after all (The White Ribbon's most obvious cinematic precursor in my mind is Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le corbeau, which treats on just that topic), and any time a metaphor sticks around, it's probably a good chance that it deserves to.

So here we are, with an old narrator (Ernst Jacobi) beginning to tell us a story from ages ago that he won't entirely vouch for, although it seems like he's unusually reliable as unreliable narrators go (that is, one never doubts the truth of what he sees firsthand). Things begin when the town doctor (Rainer Bock) is involved in a terrible accident: he's riding on a horse that trips over a wire stretched between two trees. As he's rushed to the nearby city for hospitalisation, the town explodes: who could have done this thing? But there are no answers.

It's the first note in what will turn out to be a pretty horrible year for the community: buildings are set on fire, the son (Fion Mutert) of the local Baron (Ulrich Tukur) is found tied in the woods, beaten, an autistic boy (Eddy Grahl) is beat within a breath of his life and left blinded, and other deaths and miseries rain down upon individuals or the town as a hole as they will, sometimes accidentally and sometimes by the machinations of an unseen individual or group. The question of "who is doing this?" hangs over the movie, but that's not it's driving purpose: rather, as in Caché, Haneke is using the mystery as a bit of sleight of hand so that we're looking the wrong direction when he comes up from behind and stars walloping us with his observations about social dysfunction.

Primarily in The White Ribbon, everything comes down to the use of religion as a screen for small-minded tyrants to consolidate their power - which can certainly be a stand-in for the Nazis, as well as several dozen other moments just in the 20th Century. The film's title comes from the town pastor (Burghart Klaußner), whose punishment of his two eldest children Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and Martin (Leonard Proxauf) comes in the form of a white ribbon he ties around their forearm to remind them that they must be pure in deed and thought, pure as white itself (now that I think of it, that's actually a huge tell for the Nazi metaphor - perceived sin marked on an armband? I mean, duh). He also ties Martin's arms to the bed when he becomes aware that his son is masturbating, so he's pretty much just a swell example of crazy religious repression all over.

There are other forms ofinstitutional patriarchal control over every damn inch of the movie, and it makes the town's children increasingly resentful (don't forget, these are the representatives of what we might call the Nazi generation), and long before any character voices the idea it's very clear that they have some connection to the mysterious crimes being perpetrated beyond the simple interest that everybody else has in knowing what the hell is going on, though we never do find out for a certainty what the kids do or do not know. Still, Haneke works this idea that the victims of autocracy will themselves start to show signs of craving autocratic power for quite as much as he can, and it leads the film down some interesting alleys.

I can't shake the feeling, though, that this is all very sterile and brainy, without any emotional slap that would make the audience quake with alarm and fear, the way that The Piano Teacher presents a very sickening dramatisation of the effects of sexual repression. In no small part, this is because Haneke very uncharacteristically and perhaps unnecessarily pairs his study of small town fascism with a lengthy B-story about the narrator, in those days the town's school teacher (Christian Friedel), and his love for the Baron's nanny Eva (Leonie Benesch). Though unsentimental, there's a sweet feeling to this plotline that seems most at odds with the harsher treatment of the community at large, and I have the weird feeling that Haneke was consciously trying to sand off the edges of the latent misery of his A-story by showing us, "See? Nice people can have nice things, if they only fight for them and are patient". It's an emotional register at odds with the rest of the film to an unfortunate degree; and it also underlines the greater problem with the movie, which is that at times the director seems to be "doing a Haneke", trafficking in nastiness because that's what he's supposed to do, and not because the scenario forces him inexorably to do so again. Which has the effect of making the nastiness a bit watered-down, and there we are back to the "sterile, brainy" issue.

I'm also quite unconvinced that the aesthetic chosen for this film works in its favor. The director favors his customary long-ish wide shots, of course, here presented in black and white (like most contemporary B/W films, the film was shot on color stock, but it was never meant to be shown that way). Besides accentuating the severity of the mise en scène and the idea of "whiteness" - one of the key motifs in the film - there's not much that the monochrome palette does: I must admit to sharing the same first thought that plenty of other reviewers have mentioned, that it gives the film the aura of an Ingmar Bergman project, though this aura is only skin deep, and not to the credit of The White Ribbon. Clearly Haneke and his cinematographer Christian Berger were trying to go for something with blinding contrast and merciless harshness, but their use of black and white achieves this goal in the crudest way. There is an austere beauty to many of the shots, but this seems in the main an unfortunate hybridisation of Sven Nykvist and a fashion magazine. If I may voice a heresy, I think that the film would have been significantly improved for being in color; the look of it as released is just too self-aware of its own artistry, which puts up a further wall between the audience and the film, giving it even more the sense of being a study piece, not a movie that can be grappled with on any personal level.

I have certainly been meaner to the film than it deserves: even a flat-out terrible Haneke project would still be of interest, and The White Ribbon is, to say the least, good. But there's an overwhelming "meh?" feeling, drained of true outrage or any innovative cinematic ideas. It's a casual film, and given both its stated topic and the misery it presents in its world demand something more immediate and potent than "casual".