I do not have to pay $3.50 to find out what it feels like to be a Jew.
George S. Kaufman on Gentleman’s Agreement
I do not like Michael Haneke. I do not like his insufferably smug brand of moral superiority. I do not like his trite attempts to indict his audiences for complicity in his violence and sadism. Worst of all, I don’t think he’s a very good filmmaker. The White Ribbon may be the most sophisticated version of Haneke’s modus operandi, as well as the least unpleasant, but the stark artiness only makes the banality of his ideas all the more obvious. (It’s harder to see banality when you’re being provoked and annoyed.) The sophistication tactic worked well enough to win him the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but if you can still respect Haneke after listening to him prate on (in the documentary 24 Realities Per Second) about forcing truth upon the audience unwillingly and how he wants to “rape the spectator into autonomy,” then you are made of more forgiving stuff than me.
Haneke’s best works, his television adaptations of Kafka’s The Castle and Ingeborg Bachmann’s Three Paths to the Lake, show a low-key filmmaker with a gift for knowing when not to press the point. That gift was evidently lost by the time Haneke foisted Benny’s Video, The Seventh Continent, and Funny Games upon the world. The message is always the same: you are guilty, everyone is guilty. And he makes sure you hear it, loud and often.
There’s not much to The White Ribbon. Set in a small German village shortly before World War I, the movie chronicles a few years of assorted bad things that happen to the landowner baron, the farmers, and the other village officials. One child is kidnapped and tortured. A doctor’s horse trips over a thin strung wire, nearly killing him. And so on. The mystery is who is doing them.
All the adults in the village are uniformly rotten except for the schoolteacher narrator, who is merely devoid of personality and who thus serves as the point of viewer identification. His older self narrates the movie in deadening, portentous tones, making explicit what was already too obvious. The more powerful the adult, the more rotten they are, and so the doctor, the steward, the baron, and the pastor are the loci of evil. As for the children, well, if you’ve seen Haneke’s last film, Cache, you will have no trouble figuring out what’s going on with them. Actually, you won’t have any trouble either way. They’re rotten too. PS: They grow up into Nazis.
The black and white photography is beautiful but sterile, the product of a director who has never matured past his infatuation with the V-effekt. Some of the performances are good, though Haneke wastes talented Austrian Birgit Minichmayr in a disposable role, and Josef Bierbichler only has a few seconds over the course of the movie to convey incredible physical menace, which he still manages to exploit efficiently. Both were used to far better effect in the “popular” Wolf Haas adaptation The Bone Man last year:
Rainer Bock is nicely evil as the doctor (only the kids get names) and the children are creepy, but mostly the actors are more lifeless than Herzog’s hypnotized cast in Heart of Glass. (Trivia: Bierbichler was the only actor not hypnotized in that film.) The only actor seemingly given license to put some energy into his role is Detlev Buck, who plays the withering and sarcastic father of the girl the schoolteacher wants to marry. He’s evil too, but he’s funny. The whole movie should have been about him, but since he’s too entertaining and we are here to learn, Haneke only gives him a few minutes.
Now, I’m not opposed to didacticism. I can tolerate and even enjoy the essayistic work of Alexander Kluge because the ideas are original, but with Haneke it’s just the same old sermon. With the Dardennes, you get redemption and transcendence, but Haneke just wants to see you suffer. Haneke is the pastor who ties his son’s hands to the bed every night to prevent him from masturbating. He’s going to make sure we have no fun. He is the abusive parent punishing us the audience, who then grow up to be Nazis or write nasty reviews or something. If Haneke had a sense of irony, he would make something out of this, but I don’t think he even realizes the parallel. He’s a fundamentalist preaching the evils of fundamentalists.
I’m not surprised that the cinerati have eaten up the self-abnegating experience of watching Haneke, but I am surprised that few people seem to have remarked on how derivative it is. Apart from the obvious lifts from Bresson, The White Ribbon is stylistically and thematically a remake of Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, and a vastly less gripping one. Dreyer sucks you in; Haneke just harangues. Whenever the schoolteacher’s narration kicks in with all the dynamism of the drearier chapters of Atlas Shrugged, you’re reminded once more of how little enjoyment you’re supposed to be having, and how important this film is supposed to be.
For contrast, take Haneke’s Austrian superior Ulrich Seidl, whose Import/Export should have won Cannes in 2007 but was too unpretentious and vulgar to do so. Seidl doesn’t skimp on showing rank unpleasantness, but it’s in the service of, to put it succinctly, life. (I got some funny looks in the theater when I said to my friend that Import/Export was optimistic, but Seidl himself says he’s a humanist, and he is.) The villagers of The White Ribbon are Protestant, but Haneke is the very caricature of the dreary Austrian Catholic painted by Thomas Bernhard. He makes dead movies; they are dead on the screen and the audience is dead in their chairs.