David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: kafka (page 2 of 7)

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.

R. Sikoryak’s Masterpiece Comics

I’ve been reading Sikoryak’s parodies in one form or another since I was a teenager and saw “Good Ol’ Gregor Brown” (Charlie Brown does Kafka) in RAW. Finally they’ve been collected into a book. Here are two (they’re all pretty clever):

These high/low mixes don’t always travel well. How many people have any idea why Mr. Rochester speaks the way that he does in SCTV’s version of Jane Eyre? (“Whatever you do, Jane, don’t go up to the attic. I wouldn’t want you to get…murdered!”)

Kleist on Speech and Thought

Speech then is not at all an impediment; it is not, as one might say, a brake on the mind but rather a second wheel running along parallel on the same axle.

That a certain excitement of the intelligence is necessary even to revivify ideas we have already had is amply demonstrated whenever open-minded and knowledgeable people are being examined and without any preamble are asked such questions as: What is the state? or: What is property? Things of that kind. If these young people had been in company and for a while the subject of conversation had been the state or property they would by a process of comparison, discrimination and summary perhaps with ease have arrived at the definition. But being wholly deprived of any such preparation they are seen to falter and only an obtuse examiner will conclude from this that they do not know. For it is not we who know things but pre-eminently a certain condition of ours which knows. Only very commonplace intellects, people who yesterday learned by heart what the state is and today have forgotten it again, will have their answers pat in an examination…. And if such young people, even the most ignorant among them, do most often achieve good marks this is because the minds of the examiners, if the examination is public, are themselves too embarrassed to deliver a true judgement. For not only do they themselves feel the indecency of the whole procedure: we should be ashamed to ask a person to tip out the contents of his purse before us, let alone his soul: but their own intelligences come under dangerous appraisal and they may count themselves lucky if they manage to leave the examination without having revealed more shameful weaknesses than the young finalist himself whom they have been examining.

Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking” (tr. Constantine)

This essay is fundamentally about misspeaking, and how the brain and the mouth may not each be able to do the work of the other, or else may have to do the work of the other. There is little value assigned to misspeaking because it only adds to the effort the listener has to make in understanding the speaker, and no one likes making additional effort. But because it points out those clashes between the two tracks of speech and thought, I would rather have stumbling speaking than polished oratory.

I remember a discussion I had many years ago with a very well put-together student, and I asked him how he was able to so easily hold forth on any number of topics. He said that he remembered entire paragraphs of content, verbatim, about various subjects that interested him, and so it was just a matter of recalling and speaking them. I envied this talent because, as I explained to him, I never repeated myself verbatim. When speaking, I always started from some abstract, non-verbal items of cognition and rederived the words on the spot, and this extra effort required always caused me to slip up a bit, always caused me a bit of uncertainty that no doubt revealed me as a neophyte. Now I wonder if this tendency wasn’t/isn’t in fact due to what I think must be the horrible boredom of memorizing actual text rather than much more abbreviated and efficient concepts.

So misspeaking to me is a sign of the play (as Kant would say) between concept and language and between speaking and thinking, as opposed to the dead recitation of words that people have memorized so that they no longer remember the actual meaning or many possible meanings. Or as Wilhelm von Humboldt puts it:

In speech the energy of the mind breaks a path through the lips, but its product returns through our own ears. The idea is translated into true objectivity without being withdrawn from subjectivity. Only language can do this; and without this translation into an objectivity which returns to the subject–and such a translation occurs, even though silently, whenever language is at work–the formation of concepts and hence all true thought would be impossible…For language cannot be regarded as a substance which is present, which can be apprehended as a whole or gradually communicated; it is something which must be constantly produced, and while the laws according to which it is produced are defined, its scope and in a certain sense the manner in which it is produced remains indeterminate…Just as the particular sound mediates between the object and the man, so the whole language mediates between him and the nature that works upon him from within and without. He surrounds himself with a world of sounds in order to assimilate and elaborate the world of objects.

Forget the indeterminacy and one half has gone missing. Most writing and speech is dead.

Update: An apropos reblog of a short Kafka parable:


In my case one can imagine three circles, an innermost one, A, then B, then C. The core A explains to B why this man must torment and mistrust himself, why he must renounce, why he must not live. (Was not Diogenes, for instance, gravely ill in this sense? Which of us would not have been happy under Alexander’s radiant gaze? But Diogenes frantically begged him to move out of the way of the sun. That tub was full of ghosts.) To C, the active man, no explanations are given, he is merely terribly ordered about by B; C acts under the most severe pressure, but more in fear that in understanding, he trusts, he believes, that A explains everything to B and that B has understood everything rightly.

Kafka (tr. Kaiser/Wilkins)

Blumenberg and Husserl

Durkheim (not that one) wrote about my account of Blumenberg:

I think that Blumenberg is much more positive about the modern age than you suggest. Indeed, one might even compare his remarks on science – particularly its institutionalisation of method – with those of Popper. Popper of course would have no time for myth, but Blumenberg’s genius was to have shown that myth too can be defended in a similar way to science. The never ending variation that is the history of myth’s rewriting is comparable to the infinite progress that is the fate – and the triumph – of modern science.

I agree with this and I didn’t mean to give the impression that Blumenberg is a pessimist. In fact, Blumenberg’s ire seems reserved for those conservative pessimists like Schmitt, Loewith, or even Voltaire, who define the present moment as a crisis and look back to the past to try to find some point where we went wrong. He has even less patience for those, from Epicurus to the Gnostics to Kierkegaard, who ask that we should turn our back on the world and seek some private, otherworldly transcendence. And I do believe that Blumenberg’s endorsement of curiosity, science, and a secular interest in improving the world amounts to a prescription for a pragmatic progress: the right for humanity to explore, experiment, err, and positively evolve.

It is so optimistic, in fact, that it is difficult for me to accept enthusiastically. If I believe that a humanistic science offers the best way forward for the people on this planet, it’s only because I can’t think of any better ideas, not because I am filled with hope that things will work out. Blumenberg is more of a believer, and the faith he holds seems best portrayed in Blumenberg’s touching portrait of Husserl:

Scarcely a decade after theory, as mere gaping at what is ‘present at hand,’ had been, if not yet despised, still portrayed as a stale recapitulation of the content of living involvements, it was the greatness of the solitary, aged Edmund Husserl, academically exiled and silenced, that he held fast to the resolution to engage in theory as the initial act of European humanity and as a corrective for its most terrible deviation, and that he required of it a rigorous consistency, which is still, or once again, felt to be objectionable. Hermann Lübbe has described as the characteristic mark of this philosophizing, especially in the late works, the “rationalism of theory’s interest in what is without interest”: The existential problem of a scholar who in his old age was forbidden to set foot in the place where he carried on his research and teaching never shows through, and even the back of the official notice that informed him of this prohibition was covered by Husserl with philosophical notes. That is a case of ‘carrying on’ whose dignity equals that of the sentence, ‘Noli turbare circulos meos’ [Don’t disturb my circles].”

The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, III.Introduction

Let’s leave aside that Archimedes, in addition to being killed while working on theoretical math, had also designed warships and this claw:

The ideal here is that of a scholar who can retain his absorption in theory even as the surrounding chaos nearly envelops him. Here, for Blumenberg, it is theory that acts as the linking and growing mechanism of humanity. (And as commenter Durkheim suggests, theory is something of a halfway point between myth and science.) The danger is, of course, that theory turn into something as private as Gnosticism. What is it that gives Blumenberg and Husserl the assurance that they have not disappeared into a private fount of knowledge irrelevant to the greater world? This is a crucial question for Blumenberg to answer in the context of the book. I think that the answer, which is hinted at above, is that there needs to remain some sort of firm method, that “rigorous consistency” that Blumenberg mentions: the placing of the external world as authority and arbiter rather than one’s own self-certainty. (Here, Blumenberg separates from Hegel and moves back to Kant.) Again, I see this as a pragmatic methodology more than anything else, except that there was no such named tradition in Germany.

The other somewhat orthogonal point is how Blumenberg contrasts Husserl with Heidegger, who goes unnamed but is sniped at as the person who attacks Husserl’s theory as “gaping at what is ‘present at hand'”. Blumenberg implicitly connects Heidegger’s political beliefs with Heidegger’s priority of the “at hand” and activity over cognition and observation. Heidegger’s political associates bar Husserl from the library at which he studied. Heidegger removes the dedication to Husserl from Being and Time. Husserl stands back. He keeps working. And Husserl remains one of the least alluring, least sexy philosophers ever. He never cheats, he is never cheap, he is never glamorous. (Even his glamorous successors–Derrida and Sartre–did not put a shine on him.) He just keeps working things out.

I don’t want to enter that eternal debate on Heidegger, but I do sympathize with the emphasis Blumenberg places on detached observation, on the classical act of thinking and theorizing that still seems to have gone missing amidst unending talk of politics, subversion, performativity, and so on. (To those who say that detached observation is a luxury, the subsequent activities are no less luxuries.)

When I quoted Satie the other day (apparently an appropriate quote, thank you Dennis), it was this contrast between theory and action that I was thinking of: youth in action, old age in reflection. As every development in culture and technology (hello, the web) rushes to celebrate and analyze itself before it has barely begun to be anything at all, the nonstop circle of activity exhausts me, and I want to be the rigorous, consistent theorist myself:

Deeply lost in the night. Just as one sometimes lowers one’s head to reflect, thus to be utterly lost in the night. All around people are asleep. It’s just play acting, and innocent self-deception, that they sleep in houses, in safe beds, under a safe roof, stretched out or curled up on mattresses, in sheets, under blankets; in reality they have flocked together as they had once upon a time and again later in a deserted region, a camp in the open, a countless number of men, an army, a people, under a cold sky on cold earth, collapsed where once they had stood, forehead pressed on the arm, face to the ground, breathing quietly. And you are watching, are one of the watchmen, you find the next one by brandishing a burning stick from the brushwood pile beside you. Why are you watching? Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.

Kafka, “At Night”

The Part of Kafka People Forget

It seemed to K. as if at last those people had broken off all relations with him, and as if now in reality he were freer than he had ever been, and at liberty to wait here in this place, usually forbidden to him, as long as he desired, and had won a freedom such as hardly anybody else had ever succeeded in winning, and as if nobody could dare to touch him or drive him away, or even speak to him; but –this conviction was at least equally strong—as if at the same time there was nothing more senseless, nothing more hopeless, than this freedom, this waiting, this inviolability.

The Castle

It’s not all “Before the Law” and “The Judgment.” Especially in The Castle, K. has his moments of self-determination and freedom beyond anything typically associated with Kafka. It’s still problematic–and then some!–but it’s not the man waiting for the law, and it’s not the country doctor in bed with the patient. It’s as if Josef K. had not been killed at the end of The Trial but was allowed to stay in the open air (I believe the only time in the whole novel in which he is definitively outdoors).

[A scene from the odd but effective Japanese animation of “A Country Doctor.”]

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