While it is usually Dutch provocateur Lars von Trier most quickly labeled a sadist amongst contemporary filmmakers, I’m not sure that he has anything on his more reserved Austrian colleague, Michael Haneke.
Although von Trier certainly has the more audacious style and public persona, both men work within their prescribed codes. With von Trier, apparently it’s still Dogma 95, which dictates, among other rules for him and is Dogma cadre, location shooting, use of natural light and hand-held cameras. Haneke, more the formalist, tends to work in long takes and eschews the use of soundtracks and scores. There came a certain point in Haneke’s current film, The White Ribbon, at which I began to feel as I had at similar moment in von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark: maybe these guys enjoy the suffering of their characters a little too much.
In The White Ribbon, we are told by the film’s narrator – the decent, youngish schoolteacher in the film, speaking with the remove of many decades, as his much older man’s voiceover would indicate - that the village Eichwald was thought to be a bastion of simple country virtue by its inhabitants. But then troubling accidents began to occur and things were never quite the same again. The fact that the setting is a German village just before the start of World War I is of obvious significance. I’m just not sure that all the suffering that Haneke puts on the screen justifies any such historical association or excess on his part.
Make no mistake, Haneke is an artist. This is a beautiful and arresting (at least for the majority of its 144 minutes) film. The fact that it was shot originally in color then digitally converted to black and white only seems to enhance the striking images. He elicits strong performances from throughout the cast, especially many of the child actors and Susanne Lothar, who plays the put upon midwife and mother to the retarded child who suffers the most gruesome of the violent incidents that beset the village. Whether it’s the long-suffering midwife or one of the other sober town residents, we see their faces rendered in almost painterly fashion by Haneke and his cinematographer Christian Berger. The “manufactured” black and white images seem a revelatory blend of filmed and painted portraiture.
The same can be said for the film’s feel for landscape, the passing and ritual of the seasons. All are captured with a crystalline brilliance. And much as we are often presented with beautiful images, the film does not lack (as best as I could infer) for accurate and non-idealistic period details, be they the peeling paint in a farmers house or flies buzzing over indoor meals of a summer or even over a dead body. The prevalence of those flies early in the film seems to be another indicator of the rotten state of affairs in Eichwald.
Hollywood hacks could also learn much from Haneke in terms of building and maintaining suspense. The horror in The White Ribbon doesn’t leap, it lurks, and for much of the film an impressive sense of dread prevails. Even in something of a blind alley in the plot, the school teacher taking his young future wife for a buggy ride, that dread manifests itself quite palpably. When the schoolteacher pulls off the main road and suggests a detour to a nearby pond for a picnic, the young woman demurs. As this conversation takes place, the stringent sound design typical of Haneke (i.e., no intrusive score telling you how to feel) brilliantly manifests itself. We hear the insistent sound of horses’ hooves on the ground, the persistent squeak of the buggy and harnesses. This, along with the camera movements in rhythm with the jarring of the vehicle greatly add to the feeling of unease. Nothing terrible happens, but we’re certainly ready for it.
If Haneke were Swiss, I might be tempted to make some sort of obvious joke about Swiss watches. For this film is a mechanism that operates with a kind of perfection. Unfortunately, it’s also a ruthless mechanism.
One of the unsettling revelations of the story is that there is violence committed not only against children (as well as adults) but by them. And the more we see what happens behind the veil of rectitude on the part of village adults, it seems little wonder that these kids are messed up. The victim of the first accident, the village doctor, is perhaps worst of the lot. He not only carries on a sexual relationship with the midwife, we find out that the relationship began while the doctor’s deceased wife was still among the living. Most troubling, we see confirmation of the mid-wife’s contention of sexual abuse, when the wide-eyed doctor’s son catches his father and sister Anna (Roxane Duran, a standout) in the act one night, which is left for the old-too-soon Anna to explain away.
Other father figures, whether the village pastor or the steward to the local baron, are only marginally more humane. When met with trespasses on the part of their children these men resort to humiliation - the pastor attaching the eponymous white ribbons to his children as a symbol of lapsed innocence - or outright brutality. Children are whipped, caned, kicked, brutalized. The fact that the physical impact of most of those blows is not seen on camera – whippings are inflicted behind closed doors, kicks land behind a bed beside which child has fallen in trying to escape punishment – is not only an effective way to ratchet the tension as we hear cries and yelps of pain, it also seems a way to avoid full responsibility for what is transpiring on screen.
When then retarded son of the midwife is singled out in one of the village’s mysterious episodes of violence, it finally becomes too much. By the time the hapless boy is found tied to a tree with his eyes at least partially gouged, the film has long since made its point about the poisonous environment that prevails in Eichwald and the dire effect that has been produced on its children. At this point, we have entered the arena of overkill, and that tension so expertly maintained for much of the film’s considerable length evaporates.
Can a place, like a person, have its own pathology? I think so, much as national pathologies arise from those inherent in human weakness, usually one sort of fear or another. I think it’s one of the points The White Ribbon tries to make. The point is even stated fairly explicitly by the baron’s wife toward the film’s conclusion, when she explains why she wants to leave her husband and remove her children to a more humane environment. The problem is that although much is made of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and the subsequent declarations of war in the final minutes of The White Ribbon, the causality linking the film’s brutality to that of a diseased German village (mirrored in the diseased state ready to explode into war) is both excessive and ultimately unconvincing. I think Germany probably did have its own social and political pathology going into the First World War; they weren’t alone. After the abasement and humiliations of that war, that pathology further mutated into the 1930’s, and we all know what happened after that.
I happened to have read Heinrich Boll’s Billiards At Half Past Nine during the past year. Boll deals with many of the same issues of the diseased German state prior to World War I and the decades (and war) that followed. But much as Boll also gave considerable consideration to the brutality of which children are capable when raised in a society where violence simmers beneath a misleading surface of sanguine propriety, he did not find it necessary to deal so heavily in images violence perpetrated by and against those children.
Arguably, The White Ribbon’s most brutal scene is one which abuse is delivered mainly in words, not physical blows. The doctor has grown weary of the midwife and dismisses her with contempt, repeatedly (partially because the midwife is made to keep coming back for more) making reference to her age, her flabbiness, her bad breath. She’s disgusting and the doctor has never cared about her. These sentiments are stated quite clearly, explicitly and again, repeatedly. Finally, exasperated by her stubborn refusal to accept the end of this malignant relationship, he simply says, “Why don’t you just die.” Are those repeated indignities heaped on the poor woman really necessary to demonstrate some sort of abusive patriarchy, poisonous village ethos, or diseased state? I don’t think so.
I remember defending von Trier’s Breaking the Waves in discussion at the time of its release. Don’t blame the messenger was my essential point. He’s simply showing us what frequently happens to women in this world, even amidst all this supposed modernity. But when Dancer in the Dark came along next and put its relatively angelic heroine played by Bjork through the grinder, I thought, “enough already.” I’ve come to that point with Haneke. His films have become something of a sado-masochistic parade. From The Piano Teacher to Time of the Wolf to Cache to The White Ribbon, anxiety and violence torment his characters (he particularly seems to like holding the toes of the affluent to the fire). I can’t even include Funny Games, that charming romp from 2006 in which an affluent family is terrorized by two young men in tennis whites, a la A Clockwork Orange, since I haven’t had that cinematic pleasure as yet; his 2000 effort Code Unknown, dealing as it did in mere unhappiness and alienation now seems a Disneyesque diversion in retrospect. Enough already.