Thursday, January 28, 2010

The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, his first German-language film since his original Funny Games from 1997, is a searing, enigmatic allegory, a depiction of horror and cruelty overtaking a small German town on the eve of World War I. The film is powerful and quietly moving, slowly building a sense of pervasive dread as the town's routine business is disrupted by explosions of horrifying violence and brutality, by incidents that expose the everyday nastiness lurking beneath the rural calm that the town presents on its surface. What makes the film so effective as an allegory is that, as in Caché, Haneke withholds all easy answers and all resolutions; the film is a mystery with no solution, leaving its ultimate meaning to the viewer. It is also perhaps Haneke's most emotionally rich film, built around a large cast of complex, ambiguous characters, people beaten down and made cruel by the harsh surroundings and morally fallow ground of the countryside.

The film is an angry indictment of the hypocrisy and violence that resides within these seemingly decent folks, many of whom are obvious symbolic stand-ins for various social institutions, all of them equally corrupt: the aristocracy, the proletariat, the church. The Pastor (Burghart Klauβner) might preach decency and goodness in mass every week, but with his own children he is a brutal disciplinarian who reacts to the slightest infraction with hands-on correction. When his oldest children Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and Martin (Leonard Proxauf) are late for dinner one night, he responds by sending all the children to bed without dinner and delivering ritualistic whippings the next morning. He also marks the kids with the white ribbons of the title, which are symbols of purity and innocence to continually remind them of the qualities they should aspire to. This man of God is obsessed with his abstract values, but in putting them into practice he's cruel and intractable, refusing to understand whatever's going on behind his children's blank, mysterious faces. The town doctor (Rainer Bock) is even worse, a nasty man with all kinds of secrets lurking within his home. He's sexually abusing his young daughter, who he creepily insists looks just like his dead wife, even as he's also having sex with his matronly midwife (Susanne Lothar), who he treats with contempt and outright cruelty, scorning her love.

Meanwhile, the Baron (Ulrich Tukur) and Baroness (Ursina Lardi) are aloof from the others in the town, projecting an aura of privilege and exploiting the labor of the commoners — they send one woman, too weak to do heavy harvesting work, into a dangerous area of a sawmill, where she falls through the rotted floor to her death. This is only one of the horrifying incidents that begin to affect this town, as the people's behind-the-scenes petty cruelties and domestic evils are written onto the very surface of the town, in one public spectacle after another. The doctor's horse is tripped by a thin wire and the Baron's son Sigi (Fion Mutert) is hung upside down in a barn and beaten badly, among other tragedies and acts of violence, all of them utterly mysterious, none of them ever solved. It is as though the people of the town are finally revolting against the brutality and indifference they experience behind closed doors every day. It is never clear if there is one perpetrator behind all these crimes, or if they are each the products of specific vengeful quests. As in Caché, Haneke leaves the mystery's solution fuzzy because the "who" matters far less than the symbolic import of these acts. As in Caché, the mystery here is not a matter of plot and action but an internal mystery, a mystery of the soul, a mystery about how violent acts are passed down through generations and how the chain of violence might be broken if only one generation would refuse to continue the cycle.

Often, these crimes are committed against or involve the town's young, who are affected in various ways by the sins and violence of their elders. This is the film's central thrust, the ways in which innocence is corrupted or destroyed in the presence of evil, a struggle that is far less abstract for Haneke than it is for the town's Pastor. All of the town's children are wounded by the older generation. Some of these kids maintain their innocence and innate goodness. The pastor's youngest son is a sweet, caring boy who takes in a wounded bird and agrees that after he heals it, he will set it free, even though the prospect obviously makes him sad — and then, when his father's bird dies, he offers his own as a replacement, a selfless act that seems to move even the unshakable priest. The doctor's young son is a similarly angelic young soul, who when his father is injured packs up his clothes and sets off on a journey to see his dad in a nearby town. The midwife's son Karli (Eddy Grahl) is another avatar of innocence and purity, and he has to suffer because of it, beaten and bloodied merely because of his guileless lack of the corruption that flows through so many of the town's other inhabitants, adults and children alike. Another child who suffers in innocence is the steward's daughter Erna (Janina Fautz), who says that she has precognitive dreams of horrible things about to happen; when she predicts the beating of Karli, the police hound and question her, believing that she knows who did it, causing her to break down in frustrated tears.

While many of the town's children represent purity and goodness in this way, there are others for whom the corruption of their parents seems to weigh heavier. Martin and Klara, certainly, are haunted by the great demands placed upon them by their religious father. In one of the film's most telling — and darkly humorous — scenes, the Pastor confronts Martin, who is increasingly looking sickly and depressed, his eyes ringed with black, his face sunken in and his eyes skittish. The Pastor responds by telling the boy a lengthy story about another boy who showed many of the same symptoms, eventually broke out in boils all over his body, and died. And what caused this, the priest asks? The boy was exciting his "nerves" in a forbidden place, of course, a ludicrous euphemism for masturbation. The scene would be hilarious if it weren't so depressing, if the Pastor didn't display such a profound ignorance of his son and such disinterest in actually getting to the bottom of what is obviously bothering the boy. Instead, he responds by tying Martin to his bed every night, so that he can't touch himself in the night. Could this really be what was bothering Martin, this guilt over masturbating? Or was he haunted by something darker and more real, something his father will never be able to understand or even glimpse because his mind is too fenced-off? The Pastor is too rigid in his ideas about sin, discipline and self-control to even imagine having a candid conversation with his children about anything.

These are the questions at the core of The White Ribbon: how guilt and sin flow through generations, affecting the young and innocent in unpredictable ways, sometimes corrupting their decent souls and sometimes simply injuring them, scarring them in ways likely to echo throughout their lives. Haneke's basic theme here is that innocence can't last, that goodness is ephemeral and quiet in comparison to the overpowering darkness of violence and hatred. The doctor's son, early in the film, asks the midwife about death, and with wide eyes listens as she bluntly tells him, trying to dull the impact by repeatedly stressing that this will happen only in "a very long time." He gets the idea anyway, and his awareness can't be taken away from him; he understands things with a new completeness, instantly getting that the stories about his mom being away on a trip had simply been a euphemism for this new concept called "dead."

The film is unrelentingly bleak and sad at moments like this, capturing the dawning of understanding and the accompanying loss of innocence; Haneke laments this loss, and treats it as a richly emotional moment. Only the film's narrator, the local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) and his fiancée Eva (Leonie Benesch) are ultimately able to maintain their innocence and goodness. They aren't showy about it in the way of the Pastor, but they are moral and chaste in all their interactions, possessed of a basic deep-down goodness that sets them outside of the town's horrors, and outside the horrors of history as well, their simple romance unshaken by the reverberations all around them. As the narrator, the teacher's sporadic voiceover steps in to position this story as a thing of the past, and thus as a lesson about the present — but a lesson whose meaning isn't necessarily clear. The film would be nearly unbearable if not for Haneke's suggestion, in the story of these two characters, that there is light and goodness within all the darkness, that there are those who remain unstained by the bloody crimes happening all around them.

Haneke's dark wit also leavens the grim mood, revealing itself in subtle ways throughout the film, particularly in his cutting. At one point, as the teacher romantically plays the organ for Eva, Haneke cuts him off in mid-note and abruptly cuts to a farm scene, with a pig squealing on the soundtrack, dissonantly continuing the music. Even better is the moment when, after Martin confesses to his father that he was masturbating — more out of resignation than because it's actually the truth, most likely — Haneke cuts immediately from the boy's downturned face to the doctor in mid-orgasm, having disinterested sex with the midwife. These bleakly humorous transitions characterize this film, which maintains Haneke's general wry, distanced observation of his characters' follies and cruelties. He captures their misery and brutality in stark black and white, leaning towards washed-out whites in many scenes, giving the film a very clean, crisp, wintry atmosphere, best portrayed in several shots of snowy whiteout landscapes, as pure and untouched as a child's conscience. The film's bleak aesthetic and emphasis on long takes — a funeral plays out entirely in a single wide shot, a horse-drawn carriage waiting in the snow to pull the coffin — recalls the cinema of Béla Tarr, one obvious reference point for a film that's both completely Haneke and also something of a departure for him.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Excellent reading of a quietly relentless film. When the narrator announces the that Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated at Sarajevo I almost burst into dark laughter.

Sam Juliano said...

"The film is an angry indictment of the hypocrisy and violence that resides within these seemingly decent folks, many of whom are obvious symbolic stand-ins for various social institutions, all of them equally corrupt: the aristocracy, the proletariat, the church.:

Indeed. This is a magisterial review, no matter what one thinks of the film.(and the overwhelming majority think it's quite great) I've just seen it once, and I found it problematic, even while experienced this visual eye candy from Mr. Berger. I found the underpinning as rather ludicrous and far-fetched, and the pacing oppressive. More critically, it was emotionally distancing. Yet, I am a huge fan of Heneke (CACHE, TIME OF THE WOLF, THE PIANO TEACHER) though this film is much unlike anything he's ever done. I wanted very much to love this film, and was almost planning as much, and I greatly respect many critics who have issued praise for it -including this esteemed writer- but perhaps I'll need to soon look at it again, keeping in mind so many of the superlative points you bring here to the table.

Richard Bellamy said...

Very enjoyable review, and you pinpoint clearly how the film is about the mounting mysteries for which there are no answers. But, as I said on my post, I got a little bored with the mounting mysteries - especially when it seemed there would be no climax and no resolution.

But, I suppose one can pose theories - and that makes it a stimulating film to talk about. You delineate clearly how the adults transgress and the children are punished. As I have suggested, perhaps the children have set out to punish the punishers. Thus, after the seeing the film and getting some distance from it, I found it more satisfying as a whole.

In tone and look and structure this film reminds me a lot of Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock - a film that I love, and also one that mounts mysteries and doesn't provide answers - though it at least suggests possible theories as to what happened to the girls.

Yes, the cinematography. The shot of the oldest farmer son arriving for the funeral is masterful silent filmmaking.

Ed Howard said...

David, I know what you mean about the unexpected dark humor. I burst out laughing when I realized the pastor was talking about masturbation in his portentous speech to his son.

Sam, I think the oppressiveness and emotional distance are integral to the film. I know you generally go for more emotionally involving works, but Haneke is quite intentionally maintaining more of an aloof tone here, as he often does, the better to allow the society depicted here to function on a symbolic level. That said, I think the story of the schoolteacher and his would-be bride does provide some rather unexpected emotional subtext; their romance, suggested mostly through glances and shy smiles, is disarmingly sweet, especially when juxtaposed against the film's overall mood of creeping dread.

Hokahey, I think that, as in Caché before it, theories about what's happening and why are somewhat beside the point. Sure, there are compelling possibilities for who's behind all this, and it can be interesting to think about, but ultimately Haneke leaves it open because the film is about societal and cultural forces rather than individuals. The malaise depicted here goes far beyond the particular people involved, far beyond anyone who might or might not have committed a specific act of violence. It's institutional violence and oppression.

Gokul R said...

Is the film out on DVD ?
I am willing to beg, borrow or steal a copy ... Is it out atleast on the torrents stuff ??

I am desperate !!!

Gokul R said...

Nice post !!!

jlee said...

Thank you, I really enjoyed your words on this film!

Tony Dayoub said...

...the film is about the mounting mysteries for which there are no answers. But, as I said on my post, I got a little bored with the mounting mysteries - especially when it seemed there would be no climax and no resolution.

I wouldn't go as far as saying there is no resolution. As Mr. Ehrenstein implies with his comment above, I believe the answers lie in the narrator's announcement of the Archduke's assassination. It immediately puts the story in a temporal context that has been lacking for most of the film. Throw in some other details: the fact that the victims preyed upon are for the most part the physically weakest, richest, or most exploitative in the community; the cruel form some of the punishments take; the symbolism of the white ribbon around the arm; and Haeneke's implication seem to be that we are watching the origins of the Nazi movement in the lives of the young generation depicted in the film.

The film's full title, when translated from German, reads THE WHITE RIBBON: A GERMAN CHILDREN'S TALE, a fact which only reinforces the theory that it is a cautionary tale about Naziism. At the press conference at the NYFF Haeneke articulated his decision to not have the sub-title translated outside Germany because he did not want the film to be mired in such interpretation outside his country since he thought the themes explored have universal relevance, especially today.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The more I think about this film the more I like it.

What if Haneke had provided more conventional "solutions"? What if the perp -- or perps -- hae been revealed in the last act? Would it have explained everything? Certainly not.

In fact a partial "explanation" of sorts is provided in the incredibly sinister scene where the pastor's daughter is shown killing the bird. Does that satisfy us? Of course not.

Just as in Cache a "revelation" of who was sending the tapes would tell us nothing.

Murder mysteries are profoundly conservative in that they preserve the illustion of "order restoried" and "crime punished."

Carson Lund said...

Awesome review. I had similar thoughts, although I didn't catch as much of the dark humor that you and some of the commenters point out, with the exception of the scene with the schoolteacher and his love interest's hyper-conservative, my-way-or-the highway father, which contained some great delivery. Call me a masochist, but I actually enjoy the relentless bleakness of this film.

weepingsam said...

One interesting thing the period setting does is remove one of Haneke's more common devices - embedded images. Video, TV, etc. usually plays an integral part in his films, and in the flow of information in them - the way you can't always be sure whether the shots you are seeing in Cache are from the "film" or the video in the film, for example... Though here, I think the narration carries a lot of that function, telling you one thing, and showing you something that, at best, you can't be sure is an illustration of the narration or an independent presentation of information...

And - in terms of "knowing what really happened" - the narration does a lot of the work there, in steering us to the broader interpretation - making veiled reference to later history, and particularly, to the beginning of the great war... Doubts about the truth about the incidents in the village are submerged by the sense of connection between the events and later history...

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Gokul & jlee.

Tony, you're right of course that the film is implicitly about the era leading up to the war years and the rise of Nazism. That seems pretty obvious, even without the inclusion of the German subtitle. I didn't get into that too much but it's clear that the film's subtext is: these are the small, local cruelties that could eventually lead to larger cruelties on a broader scale. Of course, that's also not a message entirely localized to Germany.

But I agree with David that the film is more satisfying because it doesn't provide the resolution to the film's mysteries. Sure, it does suggest things, and one of the things it suggests is that situations like this lead to fascism, but ultimately it's more open-ended than that. That's what I like about it, in comparison to Haneke's earlier films, which often presented a didactic message.

Sam, that's an interesting point. This is the rare Haneke film that, for obvious reasons, isn't about media or video in any way. To some extent, history does take the place of video here, in that both are means of recording and chronicling events. Just as video, in Haneke's other films, provides a record, evidence that may or may not be unreliable or selective, history and storytelling fulfills that function here.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Carson. I loved that scene with Eva's father, too. Very darkly funny in the way you can practically feel the schoolteacher's sexual frustration once he realizes he's not going to be able to marry Eva for at least a year.

Tony Dayoub said...

Of course, Ed, I didn't mean to play Captain Obvious with my breakdown on the themes of the film. I simply was addressing Hokahey's statement that there were no answers in the film.

Haeneke simply is trying to engage the viewer (and paradoxically, distance him/her emotionally) just enough to encourage him/her to seek the answers elsewhere, i.e. outside of the film proper.

Carson Lund said...

I think that video/media angle that is usually included in a Haneke film is not absent here. Rather, it is replaced by the whole film itself, the images that it is made up of. After all, what we're watching is not actually in the "present", in storytelling terms, because we're really with the schoolteacher in the "future". The whole film is the record that may or may not be accurate.

Ed Howard said...

Haeneke simply is trying to engage the viewer (and paradoxically, distance him/her emotionally) just enough to encourage him/her to seek the answers elsewhere, i.e. outside of the film proper.

That's a great way of putting it, Tony. Haneke does often walk that particular tightrope between engagement and distance, and always with an awareness of things external to the film, like the history of Algerian/French relations and colonialism in Caché.

After all, what we're watching is not actually in the "present", in storytelling terms, because we're really with the schoolteacher in the "future". The whole film is the record that may or may not be accurate.

Carson, you've stated it better than I did, but that's pretty much what I was trying to get at when I suggested that history and the teacher's storytelling serve as the de facto video record in this film.

Richard Bellamy said...

Of course, Ed, I didn't mean to play Captain Obvious with my breakdown on the themes of the film. I simply was addressing Hokahey's statement that there were no answers in the film.

Haeneke simply is trying to engage the viewer (and paradoxically, distance him/her emotionally) just enough to encourage him/her to seek the answers elsewhere, i.e. outside of the film proper.

Actually, Tony, I also said, But, I suppose one can pose theories - and that makes it a stimulating film to talk about. Also, I took the announcement of the assassination as the climax. But what I was suggesting is that as a construct, the film got kind of top-heavy.

As you say, Haneke may intend to distance the viewer. That might be true. But then viewers are free to feel distanced and not entertained by a construct that may have benefited from some judicious editing.

Nevertheless, I also said that I found the film more satisfying in the way it got me thinking about its mysteries after the movie was over.

Jake said...

Excellent review. I'm finally getting around to reading this because I miraculously found a showing in Alabama. I agree with everything you say, and what impressed me about the film is how, for a film that sought to chart how a group of people became oppressors, it never set up boundaries between good and bad, implicating everyone. At the same time, he shows enough goodness to head off calls of pure cynicism with the pastor's younger son and the doctor's kids.

The Bela Tarr comparisons are apt; there were a few moments where I could only think of Tarr's work, and the magnitude of Haneke's indictment certainly doesn't drift too far from the downbeat explorations in Werckmeister and Satantango.

I've never had a film give me a panic attack before, which is curious. Thank God it happened to be a great movie; if I'd had the sort of breakdown it sparked over a POS bit of exploitation I would be piiiiiiissed. Oh, and I'm glad someone else caught the masturbation/horribly empty sex cut. I would have laughed if my stomach hadn't already been turned into a lead weight in my midsection.

Ed Howard said...

Jake, like you say, what's interesting about the film is how thoroughly it destablizes our sympathies, blurring the boundaries rather than delineating a clear separation between good and evil - appropriate for a film implicitly about the rise of fascism, since it's all about how supposedly good people can become complacent enablers of great evil.

I can't say this film affected me quite as deeply as it did you, but I can certainly understand why it would provoke such intense reactions. Haneke really locks the viewer into this oppressive situation.

BRENT said...

I liked this film and the black and white cinematography is some of the best I've seen. I reviewed this film on my own blog but not as thoroughly as you!
The only problem I found with it (as I've read with many others who have seen it) wis its length. It is a very slow moving film which, added to the unpleasant nature of it, left me feeling exhausted by the end.
It is a bit like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in that just didn't seem to end! Rewarding, well acted and filmed as both films are you end up praying for them to finish.
Maybe it is supposed to be this way but I feel with a bit of editing it still would have had the same impact. It is a film that makes you feel uneasy all the way through knowing what goes on behind closed doors.
It is quietly unpleasant when you compare it to say The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo which is brutal and uncrompising in its depictions of rape.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Brent. I didn't have those problems — or rather, I didn't think they were problems, since the film is meant to be unrelenting in its austerity, it's meant to slowly draw you in and leave you feeling exhausted at the end. It's not exactly a pleasant experience, but it is a fascinating one.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if someone has mentioned this already, but I wanted to let you know that at one point you say the doctor's son asks the midwife about death, but that scene takes place between the boy and his sister Anni. Just thought you should know in case you want to change it. Otherwise, great review and interpretation.