April 20, 2010

The White Ribbon

The question I'm trying to raise is: what are the conditions necessary to make people susceptible to an ideology? Around the world, in every country, in every age, it's always been the same thing: when people are suffering, when people are being humiliated, when people have a sense of hopelessness, then they'll listen to the first person that comes along and says, "I know the solution to your problems." They're willing—eager, in fact—to follow that person. That was the idea behind the film, and for that reason I chose the most prominent example of ideology that we know, which is German fascism. But I think it would be wrong to limit the film to the subject of German fascism for the reasons I mentioned.
-- Michael Haneke, interviewed in Newsweek, 2009.
I saw four films from the World Cinema Showcase over the weekend: A Single Man, The White Ribbon, Fish Tank and Anne Perry: Interiors. But it was Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon that I went back to, seeing it again a few days later. And I suspect there is still more to find in this. Partly because Haneke, as he did in Hidden, opens up a mystery that he doesn’t entirely solve, while also pointing in the direction of a greater philosophical meaning. Unlike Hidden -- a film I liked much less than I like The White Ribbon -- the meaning is laid out at the very start and we are told what to look for: in the narration, a school teacher is describing a series of events that took place in a German village in 1913 and 1914; he was 31 then and he is narrating as an old man. He says that “the strange events that occurred in our village may cast a new light on some of the goings-on in this country”. We immediately think we know what Haneke is talking about: the roots of fascism.

Which he locates in what Theodor Adorno et al called the authoritarian personality. The teacher is an outsider in this village, and of a generation between its parents and its school-age children. He is in the ideal position to observe -- although he also makes it clear that some of what he is relating is “hearsay” and if I was able to go back to this for a third time I might focus on which events he was present for and which he only heard about (and we have no way of knowing when he heard). We do know that he witnesses the first strange event: a horse riding accident that puts the village’s doctor in hospital, caused by someone stringing wire between two trees. There are other attacks, some of which seem like revenge and some of which seem random. An air of guilt and shame, Protestant repression and punishment, hangs heavily over the village, reinforced by the northern European austerity of Haneke’s beautifully reproduced classical style, channelling mid-century Dreyer or Bergman. As in Hidden, there is dramatic distance; a strange flatness or evenness of tone means that the audience cannot locate any climaxes or emphases in the storytelling – nothing in the editing or soundtrack, the usual places we might look, does that work for us. This is a mystery in which every moment and every character must be taken as equally significant. Which makes the film both utterly compelling and more than a little exhausting.

In many ways, it is a mirror film to Hidden. In Hidden, reminders of crimes from the French colonial past disrupt the present. In The White Ribbon – named for a symbol of newly-minted innocence worn by village children after being caned by their parents – crimes from the past are intended to shed light on the German future. Again, we assume fascism is the end result of these deeply entrenched traditions of pain, punishment, duty and authority, but Haneke is seldom as straight-forward as he appears; he would rather destabilise expectations than hand out sincerely-meant messages. The White Ribbon soon started to suggest something else from 20th century German history, which Haneke also talked about in a Time Out

The narrator also causes us to think of later German history.
In the 1970s, the narrator could also know something about the Red Army Faction and everything that was taking place here in Germany.
That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of the film in relation to the Baader Meinhof group at all.
Some of the big names from that movement also came from Protestant homes. But I don’t want this to be thought of as against Protestantism in any way. A lot of German intellectuals also emerged from preachers’ homes. But Protestantism has a certain rigidness that’s very close to fanaticism.
I think the lesson is that while this film is partly about many things, it’s not entirely about any… Did you have an exact year in mind that the narrator was telling this story from? The 1970s?
Yes, of course. The man’s voice suggests he could be 85 or 90.
Haneke, who was born in 1942, would be more or less the same age as some of the key protagonists in the Baader-Meinhof group. One way to read The White Ribbon is as an essay on how authoritarianism reproduces itself. Another is to see it as a depiction of the attempts, often futile, to rebel against that authoritarianism or overturn it. The children in The White Ribbon are at war with their authoritarian parents just as the Red Army Faction saw their own parents as complicit in the crimes of the Nazi regime, by either supporting it or simply letting it happen. Rhetoric about the sins of the parents was overt for Baader-Meinhof; in one of The White Ribbon’s worst terror crimes – the blinding of a boy with Down Syndrome – a message about the sins of the parents visited on the children is made just as explicit. In fact, it is delivered like a ransom note.
Your work seems an ongoing critique of current western civilization.
I think you can take that interpretation, but as I'm sure you know it is difficult for an author to give an interpretation of his or her own work. I don't mind that view at all, but I have no interest in self-interpretation. It is the purpose of my films to pose certain questions, and it would be counter-productive if I were to answer all these questions myself.
-- Michael Haneke,
interviewed in 2004.