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Michael Haneke: The White Ribbon

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:

I wasted my time watching this movie when I should have been watching more Haneke.

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.

Michael Haneke at a screening

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.


  1. Thanks for writing this. Juliet and I feel similarly about Haneke but we’re too lazy to work hard on bad notices.

    I’ve never gotten over, and presumably never will get over, how many critics were willing to lap up Funny Games, a straightforward revival of an exploitation formula which I thought had been laid to rest by the end of the ’70s in favor of less pretentious and more satisfying alternatives like “final girl” thrillers and Romero/Hooper nihilism.

  2. I’m embarrassed for asking this, but how did you come across either Bone Man or Import/Export? Their trailers are terrific, and I cannot remember seeing any press for these movies ever coming to NYC.

  3. Coincidentally, I’m doing a complete Haneke watch-through right now. He frustrates me for similar reasons, and his fixation on media violence seems awfully shallow. Yet. In a purely cinematic sense, I see a huge amount of skill lurking just beneath, and sometimes on, the surface.

    Who could watch 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance or The Seventh Continent and think that this is not a man who knows a hell of a lot about cinema’s potential to convey? I just wish what he uses it to convey was less leaden with indictment.

  4. Couldn’t disagree with you more. Haneke is a wonderful filmmaker with plenty to say and says it unlike anyone else.

  5. Ray: I gather you’re thinking of Craven, Zarchi, Laughlin, et al?

    Duke Jean: Import/Export I saw at Lincoln Center as part of some festival or other, though it did open in New York fairly recently, I recall. Both are scheduled for DVD release here soon. Bone Man, well, the internet is a wonderful thing. The best of the three Brenner films, however, is the first, Komm Suesser Tod.

    Colin: I don’t disagree that he’s skilled, but most of the skill I see as having been appropriated from other, better directors. I don’t see a lot of originality. Godard, Oshima, Pontecorvo, Miklos Jancso, and Peter Watkins are far more inventive (and enjoyable) even when they’re dealing with equally didactic content, and their films often succeed in spite of the polemics.

  6. The first Haneke I saw was the original Funny Games, which I loved for the Jamesianly perverse challenges it set itself and met. I liked Caché OK, but maybe he’s a one-trick pony who doesn’t even always perform that trick.

  7. I believe you when you say that Haneke has an insufferably smug brand of moral superiority.

    Why did he make Funny Games twice for instance? The existence of the first film was already questionable, self-destructing the minute the whole film became self-aware. You’re already Haneke’s target (people who watch violent horror movies) the minute you think about watching Funny Games. Of course you have to watch it in order to see Haneke’s genius at making you look like morally simplistic fool. There’s no escaping his spankings.

  8. Oh, man, didn’t we just go through this with Trier? How many times do we gotta do it?

    A filmmaker can indict the audience for their sadistic looking, but not before they name themselves in the indictment. It’s impossible to have any credibility otherwise. Trier, Greenaway, and (apparently) Haneke don’t seem to get this.

    I found the Newsweek interview a little distressing, because if we take him at face value, he’s quite earnest about his moral motivations. The most telling moment, though, was where he characterizes all filmmaking as manipulation, and then draws the line directly to rape. He’s right that film’s immersiveness comes with moral responsibilities, but there are countless relationships that a viewer and a film can have beyond manipulator and manipulated, and anyway, it is, you know, possible, even if you are overwhelming someone’s sensibility, to give someone comfort or joy or encouragement. Perfect mastery (or autonomy) is impossible, so it is important to learn how to take care of others when they give themselves over to us, and we will be able to give ourselves over to those we trust when we can no longer manage alone.

    I will have to see the film before I can comment further, though.

  9. Here’s my rebuttal, which I’ve been requested by Mr. Waggish himself to post in the spirit of good debate. First, I don’t understand at all the claim that “There’s not much to The White Ribbon.” Of course you can boil it down to a message if you choose to, and then it’s not all that new or interesting, but why in the world would you choose to? It’s like complaining that when you disregard the words, images, and characters of Hamlet all you get is the same old revenge tale (that Thomas Kyd did soooo much better). That the schoolteacher/narrator is meant to be the viewer’s point of reference is obvious; that he is “devoid of personality” is nonsense. There is nothing “sterile” about the cinematography, unless you mean that it is cool and precise and perhaps mannered, but the manneredness is half the point in a movie which does its work in part by being a citation of the whole history of slick costume drama films. I haven’t the faintest why you would call the actors “lifeless”: again, precision and the staging of German Protestant stiffness circa 1913 is not the same as bad acting. And I found the movie the very opposite of sadistic and hectoring, and the experience of watching anything but one of self-abnegation: if anything, it’s too seductive, suspenseful, and affect-filled, enough at times to make you forget the sinister events that are happening and seduce you with beauty (call that “manipulation” if you will). Clearly, as in other films, he has a message, but here, unlike in many of Haneke’s other films, the images and the particulars of the story take precedence over whatever might be called the didactic core. In short, the only thing that’s “dead” about this movie is the viewer that comes to it with too many preconceived notions, all of which he or she will no doubt be able to back up with scattered details and ad hominem arguments. Forget even what Haneke says about the film. Who cares what he says about it? Maybe he’s just a bad viewer like everyone else. The film has its good and less good moments, but it’s a hell of a lot more interesting and nuanced than all this talk about Haneke’s personality and intentions or an easy connoisseurish dismissal.

  10. Oh, and by the way, I also completely disagree that the father of Anna (the teacher’s fiancee, who, by the way, while not a kid, also has a name) is supposed to be evil. Where’d you come up with THAT?

  11. Wow, Mr. Waggish, you really are an incredible reader and viewer, reducing everything in Haneke’s films to his private personality, just like the New York Times, who also sees Haneke as a moralist. Has Haneke ever pointed, in his films, at the possibility of maintaining a superior moral position? What is the redemption that Haneke sheds onto himself that makes him appear so condescending? And if this really is just about Haneke himself, then why can’t we finally find about a little something about you and the massive inferiority complex that seems to drive all of your posts? You want to flash your knowledge of high modernism day after day, and yet your ideas of what challenging artworks could achieve for us is limited to a moronic affirmation of who you are as a viewer?

  12. If Haneke is (as you claim) asserting the moral superiority of the filmmaker over the spectator, then you’re going to need to explain to us how to differentiate the gaze of the camera from the gaze of the spectator. You can’t do that. There is nothing that the camera does not also implicate itself in. The idea that you can distill some idea of Haneke’s moralizing persona from the simple fact that his films deal with the violence inherent in seeing, is insane, and totally unfair.

  13. dk: Never thought Greenaway (whom I love) was sadistic. He deals with unpleasant things but always in a very artificial and distanced manner. Von Trier, well, he definitely is sadistic, but at least he knows he’s a bad boy entertainer. After I saw The Five Obstructions, I actually found it more difficult to loathe him. He’s just a kid in a candy shop of provocations.

    Evriket: some of these issues fall under the “de gustibus…” rubric, and obviously the film didn’t engage me sufficiently for me to feel it merited a substantive response. I suppose I have not yet been “raped into autonomy.”

    But I do think the acting is pretty weak in general. The pastor never communicated to me the menace and oppression that he was evidently supposed to represent. Ulrich Muehe was originally intended for the part, and I suspect he would have done a much better job. It’s not a matter of the stiffness suiting the parts (as Bierbichler proves, being far better than most of the rest of the cast); it’s bad acting and direction. But I will have to ask you what about the characters seemed so well-developed. The adults’ lack of names seemed perfectly representative of their lack of distinguishing particulars. They are only defined by their sins. And the kids—I’ve seen some stunning child performances in my time, and none of these came close. (These, as others have already observed, were more at the level of Children of the Corn.) It all seemed in service to the Message.

    Re: Anna’s father. I’ll concede the point. I don’t think he’s a nice person, but he’s less evil than most everyone else. I did enjoy him though.

    SP: I respect your attempt to do to me what I did to Haneke. (Though I’m pretty small fish, you realize.) I admit I am a fan of high modernism. Good stuff.

    Paul: I confess I distilled my idea of Haneke’s moralizing persona from his interviews as well as his films. But indeed, I do not know how to differentiate the gaze of the camera from the gaze of the spectator. I wouldn’t know where to begin. I’m an empiricist, not a theoretician.

  14. Have you seen Ulrich Seidl’s other films?

  15. proximoception

    25 January 2011 at 18:48

    Amen, dead on about Haneke and White Ribbon.

    Haneke’s an equally insufferable if slightly less offensive version of Von Trier: both narcissists who want so, so badly to be Bergman.

    I loved Piano Teacher because of Huppert – I thought at the time the movie was transcending the source material, but maybe it was the actress transcending both novel and director.

  16. The White Ribbon is stylistically and thematically a remake of Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath

    hm, you’re going to have to go specific on that. i love the day of wrath and i like the white ribbon and i didn’t see anything of the former in the latter.

  17. Thoughts on Code Unknown? I love that one, even though I’m with you on Haneke.

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