Saturday, July 24, 2010

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

Pure as the driven

Das weisse Band (The White Ribbon, 2009) is Haneke's latest, a glimpse into a past that may have given birth to the sociopathic thugs that terrorized a German family in Haneke's Funny Games (1997).

The film focuses on a town called Eichwald, dominated by three men--the doctor, the pastor, the baron--and whether or not one likes Haneke's work overall, one can admire the coolly understated way he tells their stories and the dozen or so additional tales of the town, how they connect and affect each other.

The doctor (Ranier Block) is a widower, and is having an affair with the midwife assisting him. The pastor (Burghart Klaussner) is a disciplinarian, and punishes his children for the smallest infraction. The baron (Ulrich Tukur) rules with a largely benevolent hand--he helped pay for his workers' harvest festival--but at the same time dismisses his son's nanny for no discernible reason, and has negligently allowed the flooring in his sawmill to rot (as a result, a woman has fallen through and was chewed up by the machinery below). As the film begins, the doctor is riding home on a horse; the horse suddenly stumbles, sending the doctor head over heels to the ground. Turns out someone has stretched a wire between two trees--who, and why?

All this is told by the village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), possibly the only innocent pair of eyes in the community (his relative obliviousness is an excellent medium through which Haneke filters the town's secrets to us at deliberately timed moments, the same time he provides a kind of contrast to the overall sense of corruption). He is in love with the baron's nanny, and plans to propose marriage to her.

Call it a psychological striptease; Haneke's storytelling has never been more elliptical, or confident. The characters don't quite devolve into caricatures (they often come close--perhaps cross the line once or twice). Some of what happens is undeniably grotesque, but other moments help make the characterization more human--the pastor, for example, reacts with visible feeling to his son's gift of a caged bird (later the bird is horribly mutilated with a pair of sharp scissors); the baron tries in his own blinkered way to do right by his peasants (even if they end up falling through the flooring); you feel the doctor's pain as he struggles to sit up with a broken collarbone (despite the fact that his sins are more immediately terrible).

Haneke and his cinematographer Christian Berger reportedly studied the films of Ingmar Bergman--the default filmmaker when it comes to European guilt and angst and sexual hysteria--especially Bergman's films with Gunnar Fischer (you can see the influence of The Virgin Spring in this, with Bergman's later cinematographer Sven Nykvist channeling the style of Fischer). The bleakness, though, has an architectural flavor, a geometric precision, that's all Haneke.

For one of the film's closing images Haneke seems to have borrowed a shot from Hitchchock's Frenzy (1972) and sent his camera slowly retreating through the heart of the little village, creeping away from a door tightly shut. That's the central image--the motif, if you will--that Haneke has apparently chosen for the film. Shut doors naturally have this ineffable sense of mystery, of menace; shut doors imply secrets, and a camera retreating from a shut door implies secrets we are reluctant to reveal.

As a kind of ominous footnote, news arrives at the village: the Archduke Franz Ferdinand has just been shot. Haneke in interviews has declared that these children will grow up to be adults in the '30s and '40s, that they are basically the generation that grows up to become Nazis, that the sources of Nazism can be found in the film. I'm not sure I'm happy with that interpretation--the Second World War basically grew out of the political and economic mess caused by the First World War. Whatever caused the First World War was in all probability already far along its course by the time the events in Haneke's film have happened.

There's something old-fashioned, determinedly medieval about the film, and Haneke and Berger's gorgeous black and white cinematography emphasizes that sense of the past (at the same time evoking yet another Bergman drama, the 1957 Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal)). I would say this is more Haneke's portrait of personal, relational evil, of evil inflicted face-to-face, motivated by such recognizably human emotions as hatred and lust. The announcement of the Archduke's assassination is also an announcement of the arrival of a new kind of evil, one motivated by the principles of mass production and powered by both the electric generator and the gasoline engine. The film is a reminder--a documentary, if you like--of an evil that has lasted for millennia (and persists to this day); it is also a warning of worse to come.

First published in Businessworld, 7.8.10

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