The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte)
Michael Haneka (Germany 2009) Christian Friedel, Leone Benoed
viewed Tynesdie Cinema 1 Dec 2009; Ticket price: £7.00
Looking from the outside
I see lots of stars in the advertising of this film. Awarding stars, a la Guide Michelin, is the current method adopted by reviewers for rating films. Five stars seems to be par for the White Ribbon (WR) so it’s attracted a lot of positive crits, complemented by the usual hyperbolic adjectives. And of course it won the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. I have to say that after viewing it I couldn’t share the star gazers certainty about the movie.
There is much that I enjoyed about the film. Perhaps most of all that Michael Haneke (MH) is making movies with a European sensibility in which the viewer is not hammered with the arbitrary violence of crass connections but given the option of relating to the form of the film, both through the manner in which it is composed and shot and in relation to its subject.
WR is shot in black and white. I think the decision will have been made both for both aesthetic affective reasons and also so that the project was not distracted into becoming a BBC style costume drama. Shot (or perhaps printed) on Black and White gives WR the expressive feel that it is a distillation of events that are being presented to us. Bergman’s films shot on black and white have a similar effect. Further in that the film is presented on black and white stock, contrast becomes an elemental force in itself, working through the film. As a force I don’t think contrast is a purely visual affect. Its use in defining the visual style of the film transposes into other areas of the film’s content affecting the reading of the social and emotional forces in play, creating a heightened awareness of their interaction within the world of the film. The elimination of colour, if the filmmaker understands the nature of the project, generates an intensification of a film’s intrinsic concerns. MH, like Bergman, has certainty in the expressive form he has chosen for WR.
I associate MH’s films with the images of doors. As in the Piano Teacher, WR makes full use of the doors as visual motif. Doors opening and closing: doors marking public and private space, doors opening and closing space to us and the camera. Doors as framing devices through which we are permitted to half see: but no more. Doors informing us that perspective is always limited to a particular point of view. This use of doors as screens and impairers of visual fields tells that much is hidden, was always hidden and will always remain hidden, from us. And that much of what is hidden is hidden by us from ourselves. Hidden is both a social and psychic relation. It is part of us and it is perhaps this relation, between the open and closed, what we chose to open and choose to close, that provokes Haneka to make films. In Western culture committed to the chimerical values of transparency and openness, the concept of closed off and hidden is deeply inscribed into the grain of MH’s films. MH observes the closing door; closed door: an ironic filmic riposte.
As in Hidden, WR is restrained in its exploitation of its endemic material. What is important is the psycho-social movement of the theme which like a music composition MH allows to build up slowly to its moment of truth. The moment of truth isn’t as in Hollywood movies a great set piece, or melodramic explosion of emotion. It is simply a moment which like realisations that occur in the middle of the night, come in the great and lonely space of silence.
The full title of the film in German, omitted in the marketing of English version, reads: The White Ribbon – a German children’s story. I suppose that this immediately points up MH’s central object in making the film. Much as in Funny Games MH shows that a society, a culture, produces the demons that destroy it. In White Ribbon, forces of repression and oppression create the psychic condition within the children to strike out at the adult world. This hitting out by the children is opportunistic and random. Action designed to provoke reaction in a rigid hierarchic patriarchal world. It is not revenge so much as an archetypal provocation and desire to uncover, the primal chaos beneath the surface of a smug social and religious ordering.
My reservations in relation to WR concern MH’s script and his direction of the material. The script feels like it is premised on society as an apparatus, as a fully operant machine. The film feels to me as if it is mechanically following through the complex permutations of the script. I felt I was watching a film that had some of the same concerns as Bergman, but unlike Bergman movies, WR failed sustain a committed interest on my part. The plot and its playing out seemed over determined and predictable.
I was talking about this to my friend Ana Marton who pointed out to me that whereas Bergman was a filmmaker who drew on the personal; MH as a filmmaker draws on the social. This simple insight explains the source of my critical reservations with WR. MH starts from the outside; Bergman starts from within. In WR, MH’s concern with the social, together with his large cast, representing 5 families (the project started life as a TV mini serial) has the effect of turning his characters into roles, people whose only purpose is their function. Each role is simply a cog in the WR apparatus. Each of the roles is played out automatively to lead us from one social situation to the next, to guide us through from the situation at the start of the film to the situation at the end. In WR there are no real surprises; the playing out is almost impersonal; there is in the intrapersonal dynamics, nothing to command attention. WR is interesting in the same way as watching a machine is interesting. In contrast for Bergman, everything begins with the personal. The personal has social and political implications but they are subsumed in the person. Bergman arrests and demands attention because movement is within the psyche of the characters. It is they who move, or try to move in opposition to the inertia that surrounds them. For Bergman it is not the playing out of the script that is critical it is how the characters play it out. Hidden is I believe MH’s most successful film because the ‘social’ concern addressed does not take on a highly individuated form. The French TV producer, in his denials and moral insecurity, stands for a Western condition: in our privilege and denial we are all being watched. After the same criterion, The Piano Teacher, like WR fails to engage, its exteriority and documenting of social relations produces a film that operates as a closed mechanism rather than a creative opportunity.
Of course MH’s signature is the closed or closing door. He might well reply that states of mind are closed to us; we have no way of penetrating them other than self indulgence or recourse to the social. In that he is operating with a neoBrechtian sensibility This is a valid position, but one which works best with levels of theatrical flamboyance and detached irony that are evident in Funny Games but absent from WR with its low key commentary by the teacher.
A final note: it is strange that whereas the very month and year in which WR was set was precisely determined by MH, the explanatory commentary, delivered as a Voice Over by the central character, the teacher, was never given a date. The film is set in 1913, just as WW1 breaks out and when the teacher was 31. But when was the teacher’s retro voicing done? After the WWl? Or at the end of WWll when teacher would have been 63? The lack of a time line in relation to the Voice Over seems like an insecurity, an unresolved problem that lies at the core of the film’s problems. Without a temporal perspective there can be no moral point of view. Without a moral point of view the subject of the film lacks significance. The man, a teacher commenting on these events after the carnage of the WW1 or the disaster of the Third Reich, would surely, in calling up these memories from long ago, have had some moral intent in mind? MH’s failure to solve this ‘moral problem’ is a core dilemma for WR. It is an omission that detracts from the films authority and indicates a debilitating uncertainly at the heart of the project. An uncertainty which undermines any neoBrechtian ambition.