50 years, 50 films: The White Ribbon (2009)
We end an often-wretched decade with a bleak masterpiece that just might be about the roots of totalitarianism.
Michael Haneke has had something of a peculiar history. Nowadays, we think of him as among the great serious film-makers of the age. Whereas earlier generations of cineastes would eagerly await the latest Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky or François Truffaut, nowadays such people look to the Austrian master of austerity. It was not ever thus. Just 20 years ago, he was regarded by many as something of an untrustworthy provocateur — a stunt director. What was he up to with Funny Games, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance? Was he just picking at emotional scabs in public? As recently as 2001, The Piano Teacher — with its scenes of genital mutilation — was rejected by many as high-end exploitation.
The situation began to change with the slippery Hidden in 2005. The awarding of the Palme d’Or to The White Ribbon in 2009 confirmed his place in the pantheon. When he won that award again for Amour in 2012 all earlier doubts were dismissed. It was now forbidden to suspect Herr Haneke of cinema crimes.
In many ways, The White Ribbon is an atypical work. It’s a historical piece. It involves a massive cast. It has a sweep that we don’t expect to find in a director who so often enjoys microscopic examinations of frailties and psychoses. One thing is, however, very Hanekian: the sense of mystery. It’s easy to say what happens in the film, but it’s not quite so easy to say what it’s about.
Set in the years before the first World War, the film concerns a small German town shrouded in Protestant guilt. The children are constantly made to feel wretched for committing even the least significant sin. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, all kinds of adult wretchedness is taking place. As the film progresses, various acts of terrorism and disobedience disrupt the town’s uneasy stability. A wire trips a horse and injures its rider. Rotten floorboards cause the death of a farmer’s wife. A barn catches fire.
When I interviewed Haneke at the time of the film’s release, I inadvertently “caught him out”. The director (quite rightly) has always refused to offer any answers to questions asked in his films. Indeed, he argues that he doesn’t know the answers. In the midst of a response to a loosely phrased query, he made some reference to the “children” carrying out the acts of casual terrorism. “Hang on,” I didn’t quite say. “But it is never explicitly stated that it is the children. So, you’re confirming that much.” He smiled a little (something he does more often than you’d think) and pretended to wriggle. Of course, that’s not the real question. Most everybody, despite not being told as much, knows the town’s children have taken against their rigid society. The important question is not even “why”. What is of real interest is what all this says about the future of Germany?
There are (among other answers) two complementary explanations. One, of course, is that these children, after engaging in early acts of terror, will grow up into Nazis. If that is the case then, maybe, Haneke is tracing the roots of Nazism back to a reaction against Puritanism. Another explanation is that the children, by kicking against oppressive authority, are — in their immature, often cruel fashion — offering a resistance that was sorely missing in the 1930s. After all, it can’t just be a coincidence that Haneke set the film among this generation. Can it?
At any rate, the picture also works as a parable for all ages and all times. Christian Berger’s sharp monochrome cinematography adds to the sense of antiquity. The mass of juvenile performers are brilliantly cast by Markus Schleinzer (who later went on to direct the eerie Michael) and the editing has the discipline of a Thomas Mann novel. What an appropriate way to end such a troublesome, violent, turbulent decade!
For 2009, we also considered Enter the Void, Inglourious Basterds, A Prophet, Antichrist, Dogtooth and A Serious Man. Seek out the complete list here.