Film: Michael Haneke: The White Ribbon (2009)

In lieu of explicit storytelling, Michael Haneke blows smoke in front of your eyes, and then sculpts the air in such a way as to cut shapes out of the smoke.  His images are not in and of themselves the point.  They carry the ability to wield tremendous visceral weight, but they do it after the fact, in relation to each other, upon reflection.  I don’t know how he does this.  It’s the absolute essence of using the medium, as opposed to fashioning a story with its lumbering, tangible parts, and what you see is only a tiny fraction of what you eventually get.  Very often I feel lost in a Haneke film right up until the end, when the smoke takes shape and his intentions become boldly, shockingly visible.  If there was ever a filmmaker so deserving of a substance-versus-style analysis, it is Haneke – more than David Lynch, more than Wes Anderson, more than Almodóvar; Haneke is on their par as a consummate craftsman, but there is nothing showy about his filmmaking.  His is rigorously, illusorily simple, and requires that you look all the way through it.

It’s a style that will frustrate literal-minded viewers, in particular because it’s so concrete in form, seeming to indicate that he will eventually show you what he’s talking about.  His frames are studies in clean formal precision, his subjects almost always in the center, the camera never allowed a mind of its own.  His shots appear to make so much classical sense that it becomes disconcerting when – as is so frequently the case in The White Ribbon – scenes cut without an obvious conclusion.  In one extended shot, Haneke watches a puritanical pastor’s wife prepare the titular items to tie to their two eldest children’s arms, and then hustle them into the pastor’s study for a cane beating – and then, in the same shot, one of the children leaving the room and entering another to fetch the cane.  Such extended observance implies a bigger conclusion to the sequence, but Haneke cuts out quickly as the beatings begin offscreen.  There is a ritual at work here, both onscreen and through Haneke’s camera: an inevitability of behavior leading to a cold certainty about the outcome.

A calculated, cerebral directness has always played a heavy role in Haneke’s work – from the Grand Guignol horror shows that are Funny Games (1997, and its pointless, shot-for-shot 2007 remake) and Caché (2005) to the explosive psychological maneuverings of Benny’s Video (1992) and The Piano Teacher (2001) – but he has never carried out the natural logic of his own oblique style to the extent that he does in The White Ribbon.  As always, his storytelling is circuitous almost to a fault: after the opening shot, in which a tripwire sends a galloping horse and its rider crashing to the ground with sickening speed, he engages with an evasive, elliptical structure, lopping off the heads and tails of scenes and circumventing narrative logic with apparent oblivion.  For a while, he seems to be making a bad film, deliberately avoiding the slightest suggestion of the most basic dramatic resolution in order to irritate or inflame.  Worse, the damage begins to mount, in beaten children and death by murder or suicide (it’s never clear which), but it all happens between scenes, to be discovered or discussed later.

I have to admit that, although conscious that I was in the presence of some kind of artwork, I didn’t find my footing in The White Ribbon until I’d seen it three times.  Haneke’s formalism has a way of throwing you off – nobody makes films quite so intellectually stringent, and yet so loaded with mortal tension – but there is always a character-based behavioral logic adhered to with a conviction most filmmakers barely consider valuable; life is too full of whim.  Part of his logic this time around is to include the scenes his colder films have always left out: the warm and comic human moments between innocents, narrative threads that contradict Haneke’s standard-issue trajectory.  I expected there to be a darkness buried within, and there is, but not as a result of these scenes so much as in opposition to them – humanity can still be quite lovely.  Somewhere during my third viewing the whole thing came swooping together for me in a sudden rush of recognition, and I began to love this film all over again, and more deeply.

With unnerving depth and focus, The White Ribbon is about children’s absorption of their parents’ ideals, in one of the worst cases known yet to man.  Narrated by the voice of an elderly man who appears as a 31-year-old schoolteacher in the film’s pre-World War I Northern German village, the story watches the town’s leadership structure – its doctor, its priest, its baron and his steward – lash out in a series of self-succoring punishments in response to a slew of perverse crime.  There are injuries and deaths; the children all seem involved, but they could just be curious observers.  Deep uncertainty settles over the village, but quietly.  One doesn’t disrupt the natural order of this community by pointing out its rampaging disharmony.  One barely acknowledges disharmony at all, not when a vicious slap, a casual beat-down, or a cursory embarrassment will do.  The film comes in waves of social degeneration, to the point where crime and punishment become indistinguishable, the decent locked out of rational discussion with the powerful by self-erected walls of self-protective self-flagellation.

With Cache and this film, Haneke has probably become the world’s greatest horror filmmaker of existential dimensions.  Bad shit happens to complicated people, with no prayer for resolution or catharsis.  David Edelstein complained in New York Magazine that, on that front, Haneke “doesn’t deign to deliver the genre goods”, leaving audiences behind in their expectations and “yet still giv[ing] the bourgeois audience the finger”, which sounds more like the whining of a jilted child than a mature film critic.  Frustratingly, this stingy need of people to cling to generic satisfaction is far more disturbing than anything Michael Haneke put on film, as it speaks of a fierce disjoint in these folks’ minds between film and any unique perspective on life – nothing shown on the screen need reflect the mysteries and vagaries of real experience if it hampers that Aristotelian dramatic arc.  Real horror in film comes in the shock of sudden recognition that the world is not what we make of it, that it contains almost unfathomable darkness, and that the evil festering therein will in all likelihood carry itself through to the very, very end.

We need not see any of this evil – and Haneke shows virtually none – as long as there can be no doubt of any kind that it exists and will self-perpetuate.  A measure of Haneke’s thorough precision, the last shot of The White Ribbon begins with resplendent banality and gradually takes on, in details that upend what we believe is going on, absolutely monstrous implications – not only for the immediate future, but for the next generation.  Haneke has always included at least one moment in his films of pure white shock – a shriek of immutable, head-spinning violence.  He saves that moment in The White Ribbon until after the last shot has faded, ever so slowly, to black.  There is no question where this is going, and it is horrifying.

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