The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

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Mr Sausage
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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#101 Post by Mr Sausage » Fri Dec 14, 2012 10:09 pm

I agree with you, warren oates. But the movie seems to drain these points of their complexity. Instead of seeing the subtle and increasingly disturbing ways that these social conventions breed ugliness and hate, it's all black and white. No one is awful in a minor way, they're all beasts: the pastor doesn't merely treat his kids harshly, he treats them sociopathically, tying them up or whipping them or whatever else. The nice doctor is raping his daughter, and goes about dispassionately crushing his girlfriend's spirit (who is nevertheless also indicted by Haneke for accepting this crushing). And on and on. The people aren't merely bad, they're nearly stereotypes. No one in this movie is bad by half. And, of course, the children who will become nazis aren't merely buying into the social order their parents do, but go about stringing trip wires, beating the crippled kid nearly to death, and a bunch of other extreme things, as if that were the social manifestation of nazism in childhood.

The fact is: these conditions are not psychologized. They're externalized. They happen because this is how they happen. We don't get a portrait of how the human mind reacts to this particular social situation, we get an objective account of people going through the inevitable motions. The movie's aesthetic distance from its material isn't just a judging gaze, it actually turns these characters into game pieces being moved around by the will of the narrative. You see kids become nazis, but you aren't given a sense of what it feels like to be turned into one through systematic abuse.

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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#102 Post by Gregory » Fri Dec 14, 2012 10:16 pm

The discussion progresses faster than I can reply to it, and I feel like I'm as far from any possible common ground as ever. I'm going to send the post I was working on (in reply to Sausage's response to me from a little over an hour ago) to him as a PM and call this done for my part.

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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#103 Post by knives » Fri Dec 14, 2012 11:24 pm

Mr Sausage wrote: And matrix: I think The White Ribbon and Funny Games have the same agenda, just couched in different terms.
I'd throw Benny's Video in there as the worst of this tendency in Haneke though I think even his best films like Code Unknown practice this at least in part.

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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#104 Post by zedz » Sat Dec 15, 2012 12:33 am

Sausage, can you explain just how the audience is supposed to be implicated in the world of this film? Haneke does that very bluntly in Funny Games, but I don't see any similar mechanism here, any more than the audience is implicated in the cruelty of the world in Marketa Lazarova or Effi Briest.

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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#105 Post by warren oates » Sat Dec 15, 2012 2:25 am

Mr Sausage wrote:But the movie seems to drain these points of their complexity. Instead of seeing the subtle and increasingly disturbing ways that these social conventions breed ugliness and hate, it's all black and white...The movie's aesthetic distance from its material isn't just a judging gaze, it actually turns these characters into game pieces being moved around by the will of the narrative.e.
I agree. For all the mastery of Haneke's direction, the writing makes the film feel strangely lifeless, strangled by its own oversimplified determinism.
zedz wrote:Sausage, can you explain just how the audience is supposed to be implicated in the world of this film? Haneke does that very bluntly in Funny Games, but I don't see any similar mechanism here, any more than the audience is implicated in the cruelty of the world in Marketa Lazarova or Effi Briest.
I'm interested to hear more about this too.
knives wrote:I'd throw Benny's Video in there as the worst of this tendency in Haneke though I think even his best films like Code Unknown practice this at least in part.
I actually think Benny's Video is one of his very best films, a world where all the characters get to make their own choices and damn themselves and the audience is allowed to make up its own mind about why it's happened thus. If you feel like elaborating, I'd like to know why you think it's being as didactic as Funny Games or The White Ribbon.

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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#106 Post by knives » Sat Dec 15, 2012 2:27 am

I think those pig's brains is a pretty direct attack to the audience to give just one example.

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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#107 Post by warren oates » Sat Dec 15, 2012 3:23 am

knives wrote:I think those pig's brains is a pretty direct attack to the audience to give just one example.
Just because we're watching Benny watching it? I think that looking at Benny's Video strictly as a critique of, say, too much video viewing is a bit limiting. Benny's relationship to the videos he rents/makes/plays back obsessively is more symptom than cause. He watches everything in his life with the same mildly detached fascination, and the videos don't initiate this dysfunction but reflect it. To me the film is brilliant because it turns out to be not so much about what Benny does but about what his parents do (or don't) when they find out. As we see his parents react to the reality of the tragedy Benny's wrought, they betray their own responsibility for their son's stunning coldness. And yet Benny is still the one in the end who, in spite of his largely callous-unemotional demeanor, manages to tell the truth.

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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#108 Post by Mr Sausage » Sat Dec 15, 2012 8:03 am

zedz wrote:Sausage, can you explain just how the audience is supposed to be implicated in the world of this film? Haneke does that very bluntly in Funny Games, but I don't see any similar mechanism here, any more than the audience is implicated in the cruelty of the world in Marketa Lazarova or Effi Briest.
I can sort of do it, but I don't know how satisfactorily (and I haven't seen the other two films you've mentioned so I can't comment), but it's really the conjunction between Haneke's moralistic, judgmental manner in the movie and the sense that the town isn't meant to be singular, either geographically or historically. I get the sense Haneke is trying to show the audience themselves and show them what they've created with their stupid social orders, and conventions, and blind-eyes, and impotence. What the characters have created in the film is what we have created in real life, which means, again, that Haneke has created a world on film, said it is the real world, and then indicted us to having created said world through all our abuses.

If he had included himself in the attack or been less judgmental, I probably wouldn't get this sense. But I feel he intends to accuse more than just WWI era small town Germany. And I don't get the sense Haneke wants us to share his judgmental gaze. We are to see ourselves in there somewhere instead.

The terms on which he indicts the audience aren't as strong or obvious as Funny Games, but I suspect they are still there, and they're still unpleasant.

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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#109 Post by repeat » Sat Dec 15, 2012 11:46 am

Well, it's certainly a hilarious testament to the provocative potential of this guy that one aside in a completely unrelated thread manages to spark a discussion like this...

Can someone locate that press conference quote of his about the walk-outs at Cannes in 1997?

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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#110 Post by Gregory » Sat Dec 15, 2012 4:07 pm

I may have been hasty or stubborn yesterday in not wanting to comment on my own interpretation of this film, when that may shine some light on the specific ways I disagree with Mr. Sausage, so I thought I'd try to offer some parts of how I understood the film. I would say that the film uses events and interplay between many different characters—not all of whom are cruel, ignorant, or culpable but whose lives are impacted by human evils in various ways—to look at specific kinds of social and cultural underpinnings of fascism in general (not Nazism specifically) and even more generally at particular forms of religious practice and hierarchical and coercive social relations. Many of these of course exist in an array of twenty-first-century forms and each person who sees the film will have a slightly different understanding of what they are, a different role in supporting or working to resist these, and will have been affected by these social and cultural influences in their own ways. And so the film is about the viewer probing these things for him/herself, not about the director indicting anyone or issuing collective guilt onto an audience on extremely vague grounds.

The notion that everyone in the town, or almost everyone is evil or cruel or ignorant is simply not borne out by the film at all. That strikes me as a kind of extremely judgmental take on the world of the film that I think says a lot about why those who approached it in that way and are attributing those intentions to Haneke seem feel the way they do about him. There's lots of cruelty on display in the film, of course, including among the children. Children are sometimes capable of monstrous acts of cruelty and will sometimes egg each other on in a group. That kind of behavior and mentality is far, far broader than being simply tied to Nazism. When they are treated cruelly, often act out that cruelty on someone or something else. The pastor disciplines his children in ways that may seem "sociopathic" to us today, but that was the reality, and still is in many places. It is not simply evil or sadism; it was a specific social view of moral hygiene, sexual behavior, and discipline that had long historical roots and fed into the development of fascism, but was not limited to that, and as I suggested above, exists today in other forms which it's up to the viewer to decide how the dots are connected. There's nothing stereotypical about any of this, and it's not simple or neatly contained enough that Haneke could put it all into a box and say "this is evil."

Nor, in my view, is the film some kind of deterministic argument about a social environment that conditions children to become Nazis later in life because they have no inherent basis for their moral behavior and simply replicate the cultural mores around them. That kind of view of moral development seems to me very similar to the behaviorism espoused by B.F. Skinner, which had no scientific merit and would rightly be considered discredited, so I think the ways in which the fictional world of the film relates to the real world exist far away from those kinds of simplistic assertions that deny the characters any kind of agency or free will. If it's all just horrible people inexplicably doing horrible things to others (a description that applies far more readily to Funny Games) and that's what is thought to explain Germany's political history, then I wouldn't be interested in this film at all.

Does Haneke "indict" the woman the doctor is sleeping with for being in love with him or "accepting" the humiliation he spews at her in the scene where he breaks off his relationship with her? I'm not convinced of that at all, and I find that part of the story to be a more complex exploration codependency and how shame and abuse operate in ways that people in a relationship are often not aware of consciously. I feel like I could keep on writing but will just end here.
(Edited to add one missing word)
Last edited by Gregory on Mon Feb 25, 2013 5:51 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#111 Post by Mr Sausage » Sat Dec 15, 2012 4:22 pm

gregory wrote:The pastor disciplines his children in ways that may seem "sociopathic" to us today, but that was the reality, and still is in many places. It is not simply evil or sadism; it was a specific social view of moral hygiene, sexual behavior, and discipline that had long historical roots and fed into the development of fascism, but was not limited to that, and as I suggested above, exists today in other forms which it's up to the viewer to decide how the dots are connected. There's nothing stereotypical about any of this, and it's not simple enough that Haneke could put it all into a box and say "this is evil."
A. the outwardly kind pastor who privately torments his family is a long-standing stereotype. And this one here seems pretty pathological.

B. compare Haneke's pastor with the domineering pastor in Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. Bergman gives his pastor a detailed psychological portrait. At times you feel Bergman understands the man even to the point of sympathy. His actions are deplorable, but you understand where they come from. He is not just a bald, empty hypocrite, and his cruelties aren't exaggerations. Bergman's character steps over from stereotype into living person.

Haneke takes his pastor's perversions and cruelties for granted. The pastor abuses his kids because that is what pastors do. Pastors treat sex fearfully and domineer over their wards. I fully expected the pastor to abuse his family, and lo and behold he does, without explanation. Haneke doesn't need to show the man's character, because we are all familiar enough with the stereotype to just accept it.

Indeed, it seems like Haneke takes most of the cruelties, stupidities, and abuses in this movie for granted. He also takes it for granted that this is the stuff that makes fascism, enough not to want to bother with psychology.

EDIT: it should be noted that almost none of the characters have proper names, if anyone were still under the impression these are meant to be specific characters and not wider vehicles of critique.

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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#112 Post by Gregory » Sat Dec 15, 2012 6:20 pm

I don't think the pastor's parenting is quite as simple as mere abuse. It's abusive at times, by our own present-day standards, but is symptomatic of an entire approach to parenting that reflects the pastor's belief system and the perceived need to shape children's moral and sexual development with a very firm hand. He does it partly but not entirely just because that's what was commonly practiced within the kind of religious order of which he's a part but not to conform to a stereotype or because we're meant to believe that's what all pastors do (which would be outrageous distortion). Parenting now is almost unimaginably different from what it was in the era before Dr. Spock's ideas about child development and subsequent theories about child psychology became widely accepted, and the much different time and place of the film long before that was far different still. Bearing all of that kind of thing in mind as part of the context in which the events of the film take place—to the extent that we can understand such a different time and place—it becomes far easier to see the pastor's actions has having some good or at least socially "normal" intent behind them, even if none of it is recognizable as "love" as we conceive of it. And his character is a part of it. The pastor's character is not determined by the cultural factors I'm describing, but the two are intertwined. There is cruelty and spite in his actions, and a desire to dominate, but there's more to it as well, and attributing it to a "pathology" seems to raise more questions than it explains about him.
For me, the only character in the film who's simply an evil person who does not merit (or simply defies) any attempt at greater understanding is the doctor.
I agree with your observations about Bergman's treatment of the bishop in Fanny and Alexander, a favorite film of mine. In that film, the bishop and his relationship to the family is given far more time and focus in which to elaborate.

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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#113 Post by Mr Sausage » Sat Dec 15, 2012 8:20 pm

It's the systematic and passionless way he goes about it that reveals the pathological aspect. Generalizations about parenting aside, you ought to remember the context in which you are watching the pastor have his children line up one by one to kiss his ring, or the way he victimizes them for imagined or harmless crimes, itself a key aspect of terrorization, or the fact of the white ribbon device alone (one of the more thudding connections with nazism in the film). This is a movie about how monsters are made. In that context, are we really meant to find historically located excuses for his behaviour?

The pastor doesn't even have a name; he is not really a person. He has no internalization. He is a stand in. And this generalized quality to the film, along with the way it is narrated in retrospect by our lead, gives it the quality of a fable or parable. It's not for nothing that the full title is Das Weisse Band: eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon, a German Children's Story). And much like a parable or fable, this one too has a message, a lesson to be learned. The characters are generalized representations of the powerful (all the characters with power in this movie are reprehensible in some obvious, outward way), or of the weak (either displayed as impotent or as grotesques). This is a society rotten to the core, and its rottenness has bred, in the manner of a fable, avenging spectres who enact all the crimes of the town on an abstract, motiveless level. Fascism, terrorism, nazism, these are all the offspring of our rotten social institutions and our corrupt natures in Haneke's film. And as similar abuses and cruelties continue to this day, the movie must be indicting our modern societies as well.

The Pastor isn't determined by cultural factors because he's not a real person. He is a personage in a fable, a generalization, part of its thematic machinery. Again, how much individuality is there to a character whose name is his title? And in a movie in which just about everyone has a name that simply describes their role in the narrative?

The White Ribbon has all the trappings of a movie with a didactic purpose, with the added distaste that its audience needed to be taught a lesson, chided for what they too have contributed to a sick society.

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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#114 Post by karmajuice » Mon Feb 25, 2013 5:06 pm

So I hate to resurrect this argument, especially because I fear I have little to add, but I just have to reinforce some of the points made against Mr Sausage's assertions.

Let me start by saying that you make plenty of good points, and the film definitely operates as a fable on some level -- the film's German subtitle clearly establishes that. But I feel like you have blinders on, because there are elements to the film you either seem to be forgetting or which you're deliberately ignoring. For one, you say "No one is awful in a minor way, they're all beasts", but I don't feel like this is remotely true. Nevermind the fact that several of the characters are lovely, humane people (because we could read that as part of the film's didactic agenda); I don't think most of the "bad" characters are beasts. This is true of neither the Steward (who beats his child when he attacks the Baron's boy, but otherwise appears kindly and helpful) nor the Steward's wife, who tries to prevent the beating. It is not true of the doctor's mistress, the Baron or the Baroness, nor the array of citizens we see throughout the film. Even the doctor, easily the most detestable character, exhibits moments of tenderness (usually when dealing with children, like his son or the child of his mistress). Same for the pastor, though I want to discuss him in more detail.
The children, by implication, are beasts, but we never see much of them, and I think that's telling: their behavior is relegated to the background, where it will remain until the 1930s. Part of what led to the events that happened later in Germany was the incapacity to recognize them. At the same time, we get the sensitive son of the doctor, his kind-hearted daughter, the girl who warns the schoolteacher about the planned attack but can't bring herself to admit why she knew about it -- children who break what could be a systematic portrayal of nascent Nazism.

Frankly, I think what saves this from being merely a fable is the complexity and authenticity of its social dynamic, and its humanity, which is on display throughout the film, most distinctly in the relationship between the schoolteacher and Eva. But it's the pastor I want to talk about most.

You insist that he's less an individual than a placeholder for a type, and that generalized dimension is present, but the film doesn't exclude personal development, and I think the pastor is an individual, whether or not he has a name. I don't think for a moment his behavior is pathological, and you're ignoring the historical context which Gregory so clearly pointed out. He has a guarded attitude toward his children not out of psychosis, but because parents believed they should serve as an example of moral rectitude and order for their children. He is reserved and consistent to assure their moral development. The fact that his methods and philosophies are so outrageous and harmful is the tragedy of the social beliefs of the time, not any sort of moral decay on his part. This sort of behavior is thoroughly documented and was widely true at the time.

I recently read Memoirs of my Nervous Illness; if you're not familiar with it, it's an autobiographical account written by a judge (Daniel Schreber) committed to a mental institution after a breakdown. It's a thoroughly fascinating book and I highly recommend it, but it's especially interesting in the context of this discussion. Schreber's father, Moritz Schreber, was a physician who dealt extensively with children, in particular child-rearing habits. The disciplinary action we see in the film is derivative of the methods he helped popularize in Germany in the late 1800s, and which were commonplace. His approach involved lots of physical activity, including remedial exercises of a repetitious and strenuous nature. Some of his more severe methods included a mechanism which literally strapped children to their chairs to maintain posture while they ate, and dunking infant children into ice-cold water when they cried. He was also severely opposed to masturbation, with many of his methods intent on expending "excessive energy"; he advocated a variety of means for preventing masturbation, which presumably might include tying hands down in bed, as seen in the film.
He practiced what he advocated on his own children. His son Daniel was one of three of Moritz's children who suffered from mental afflictions later in life. His eldest son killed himself. It's reductive to lay the blame purely on the father, but one can't deny that it must have had an effect.
It's impossible to say what Moritz was like, but one can only assume that he prescribed these methods in the earnest belief that they would help make children into healthy, functional adults. Their severity was not rooted in pathological behavior, but in a rigid, stubborn certainty and discipline.

I go out of my way to say all this, because I believe this is true of the pastor in The White Ribbon. I see no evidence whatsoever to suggest that this man is pathological -- those are your own projections, and perhaps your unwillingness or inability to acknowledge the widespread use of these methods at the time. If he is cold and distant with his children, it's because he believes that demonstrating passionate emotions could lead to moral decay in his children. This is a worldview, not a psychosis. And the film gives us moments when this becomes readily obvious. He is fair and understanding when his youngest boy brings in a wounded bird, and lets him keep the bird; he is clearly touched (but unsure how to show it) when the child offers him the bird after his own has been killed. He is also evidently deeply disturbed by what his daughter did with his songbird, to the degree that they mutually acknowledge it at communion without actually bringing it up, which is a form of denial on both their parts (and he does not punish her for it, this man so harsh with his discipline, because to punish her he'd have to accept that she was capable of doing such a thing). He witnesses genuinely pathological behavior and does not know what to do with it. When the schoolteacher mention his suspicions, he perpetuates this denial (we can tell he is wrestling with what the teacher says, and knowing what his daughter did to the bird it seems easy to suspect the children might do more, but he cannot bring himself to accept this), and his condemnation of the teacher is a way of concealing this.
The pastor would never be able to realize that his disciplinary actions, which I believe are performed with sincere concern for his children, could contribute to the ruthless behavior they are accused of.

I just watched it for the first time last night, so it's still fresh and loose in my mind, but these are my initial impressions and I hope they give some insight into this discussion.

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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#115 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Feb 25, 2013 7:10 pm

This is a bit like having a prof hand back your paper several months later and tell you it all needs to be redone. Oh god, you say, I thought I had finished with all this!

I would need to rewatch the movie to deal with the fine details you raise, so this will remain somewhat general:

Regarding the historical context of the pastor's behaviour, you're skirting close to the "they didn't know any better!" excuse for historically located crimes. I actually am well aware that the pastor's behaviours are not singular and that the principles that underlie them are old indeed (and still ongoing). That doesn't make the pastor any less a generalized condemnation of moral perversion. He is plainly enough a portrait of tyranny, of the use of power for its own sake, of the way in which moral rectitude transforms into capricious, vengeful law. Tyranny is founded on the exact kind of paternalism you detail. That Haneke has the children line up every day to kiss their father's ring(!) ought to tell you everything. I really don't know what to make of your point that the pastor is motivated by sincere concern for his children. Why, because he's doing it in the name of Christian values? Because he's a father and they are kids? His behaviour comes across as cruel, cold domination, of a piece with any tyrant who ever relished the power of his position and took satisfaction in his own supposed rectitude. He shows the sadist's usual focus on punishment over guidance. At base here is narcissism. I believe Haneke is trying very much to show us that, not trying to insert a sentimental half-justification into things (which would be equally distasteful, along the lines of the ending to Isle of the Dead).

I don't see the complexity in the character; I see the usual signifiers of sadism and tyranny being bluntly mobilized on behalf of a savage condemnation of the attitudes that gave birth to fascism/nazism/[insert -ism]. The pastor capriciously brutalized his kids over petty or imagined crimes and made them wear banners to announce their shame, and then those kids went on to brutalize a race of people for imagined crimes, make them wear banners to announce their shame, and took a similar pleasure in extreme forms of order and supposed moral rectitude, all while evincing a lack of basic human sympathy. For Haneke this is all of a piece; the pastor is the architect of the nazi mentality.

The small, petty kindnesses from the awful characters aren't really compensation for any of the horrors (who would say that they balance!). And if I'm remembering correctly, the film doesn't build towards their reveal. It's the opposite: at first we glimpse what seem like outwardly kind, decent, law-upholding citizens, before the layers of superficial goodness are slowly and methodically peeled back to reveal the awful, cankerous heart of it all. The effect is rather like: "hey, think this person's good? Think he's decent? Because he's a doctor? Because he was a little fatherly with his kid? Hah! Watch him rape his daughter! Now you see what you have!" I think Haneke is looking to shock us with these reveals, with the shallowness of the various outward displays, but I guessed where this was all heading fairly quickly, so it was more laborious than anything. The kindnesses are there as a misdirection.

Regarding the minor characters who don't seem awful, I don't get the sense they are the moral balance here. On the contrary, Haneke seems to show them as weak and helpless and, in the end, just one more complicit, silent buttress. The film ends with a crucial image: the whole town arrayed against the narrator in a formidable and willingly-taken pose of authority and hierarchy, each person once again in their place, each buttressing, balancing, and complying with the (false) image of strength and solidarity, all framed by that giant symbol of eternal order, the church. It's a frightening image; after all that's been revealed, after all the narrator has tried to do, everyone still assembles once more to play their eternal roles. The show goes on.

It's a damning final image.

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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#116 Post by therewillbeblus » Wed Jul 01, 2020 1:07 am

Despite Haneke’s provocative specificity with which he lyrically describes the intent of this film in the unveiling of cruelty, revisits have afforded me a more holistic comprehension of the material, and I’ve grown to find it most interesting as a broad depiction of community. Sure, oppressive and suppressive forces breed brooding resentment and erupting anger, but there are genuine blots of inquisitive youth, isolative emotional meditations, and beautiful interactions between people- especially that early exchange between the teacher and Eva. It’s obviously not an optimistic film, but neither is it necessarily didactic and condescending in every breath.

A lot of attention is paid to what evils occurs behind closed doors (literally so in an early scene) which naturally teaches the youth to secretly carry out their own plans outside of the scope of the public or even the film’s audience. However, in daylight out in open spaces, joy can permeate the community- and although Haneke goes to great lengths to explain that this correlates with the group cohesively burying the past and moving on, while unable to do so in private, that doesn’t minimize the possibilities for engagement and compassion within these restrictions of communication.

I think that speaks to the Nazi analogy as well- a public facade of contentment, belongingness, and promise with a sheltered disease harboring, but was the “promise” of Hitler interpreted as inauthentic? Was every German citizen who admired him a bad person for wanting a greater life? I wonder if Haneke is actually too narrow minded in his own assessment to see what he’s created here: a world that can be both a breeding ground for dangerous psychology and a place where people can be swayed into subjective experience of hope and love- depending on the cards they're dealt.

The schoolteacher’s relationship is honest, and some of the conversations between adults feel so too- and even if their complacency indirectly helps perpetuate the authoritarian trauma inflicted beneath their noses, Haneke’s unwillingness to focus his analytic attention beyond fixed responsibility is unfair to the scenes of valid present-minded positive living that is going on. You can send the cute couple to the gallows with everyone else, or dismiss their worth based on love's inability to contest with hate, or ignorance with disgusting Hobbesian nature gone wild, but you can also grant them agency in prioritizing their union and coexisting in a community along with a bunch of complex people with deep-rooted political attitudes, emotional regulation skills, and patterns of interventions for discipline. Even Eva’s father is blunt with the schoolteacher- he has his rigid ultimatum ready, but delivers it compassionately without disregarding the character of the suitor, or disqualifying his proposal. Compromise and open-mindedness are possible even in the 'old ways.'

Again, I'm not trying to disregard that this is most definitive about what Haneke believes it’s about (he did make the film), but there are too many beautiful scenes of empathy and connection to warrant such an simplistic reading. Communities are complicated, as are people, even if the horrors here are in the loudest, binary actions and emotions of fear and happiness, or good and evil; there’s a lot of in-between. Sometimes I feel like Haneke’s natural gravitation toward humanism, particularly exposing the beauty of raw emotions, is at odds with his own professed coldness and aloof attitude. There are films where that sterile worldview wins out, but the humanity on display here refuses to completely bend at the knee.

Still, as the narrative progresses, a lack of reciprocal communication and reserved narcissistic behavior perpetrated by adults overwhelms the good. Conversely, we also continue to get congenial moments of the teacher and Eva together, and I believe that their children will not be destined to the same conditioned hell that these kids are. Does that mean they won't be Nazis too? I tend to side with the idea that this is the type of environment that can contribute to vindictive behavior and antisocial personalities, a scathing indictment of stunted social development within autocratic systems. I won't deny that Haneke is making a more direct and clear connection, but to me that final moment declares- 'Yeah, it's no wonder we were so easy to influence, with institutional brutality infecting our existence' - while recognizing that this environment did not create the movement- and also in acknowledging that moral people do exist. We just need to be consciously questioning systems to practice morally. The pastor's wife stands up to him for this reason- and the teacher does so at the end as well, but regardless of whether or not there is hope that more have and will continue to do so, a cynical prediction doesn't translate into blame.

I'm not a fan of this kind of didacticism, but I do love this film- mostly because it's a beautiful amalgamation of perspectives in a community from every possible objective angle, and even told in part through a subjective outsider's journal; but also because on the 'message-front' I prefer to believe that Haneke is championing critical thinking, specifically skepticism, rather than finger-wagging and acting superior to his audience with a Too Late hand in the face. I do think Haneke carries an air of superiority, though not in relation to us this time, and more in a "I'm calling a spade a spade" spirited empowerment, even if that's just his opinion. There is a late scene where the teacher enters the pastor's home to question the children. He looks around at all the physical items and decor in the room while waiting, which lasts more than just a few seconds- long enough to make an impact- completely unaware of all the horrors that have happened in this very place. I think this is emblematic of Haneke's point here: that human beings cannot be omnipresent, cannot stop what goes on behind closed doors, or see what is hidden from the nature of privacy exacerbated by the constraints of ideology. If the teacher cannot possibly see what only a camera can, then how can he be responsible? This may be a nihilistic or hopeless view, but Haneke is smart enough not to chastise his audience for being blind to action that we are literally unable to witness by the nature of humanity's limitations and society's secret functioning.

If we want to modernize the tale, I could see a scenario in which Haneke sees himself -and hopefully a good chunk of his audience, family, friends, etc.- as the school teacher/ Eva, disillusioned from impediments to serving as agents of change, but also recognizing that people naturally have them - so he uses his camera to show and tell what he cannot discover otherwise.

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mfunk9786
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Re: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

#117 Post by mfunk9786 » Wed Jul 01, 2020 10:20 am

Great read. Would not be the first time that Haneke has claimed his film is precisely one thing when it's obviously working well on other levels too - he seems like a bit too much of a pedant to ever allow for alternate readings of his own work if interviews are any indication, but that doesn't mean they aren't able to be there. Especially when the films are this rich in subtext, intended or otherwise.

As for a modernization, thought you might be going in the direction of speculating about a remake - you could certainly tell this story in modern day Trump country and not miss much of a beat mapping it.

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