Thursday, April 1, 2010

The White Ribbon

(When I initially reviewed The White Ribbon at the Edmonton International Film Festival, I found myself enjoying it, despite my reservations. Yes, it was a bit of a bloated, self-important piece of white elephant art, but it was also well made and engrossing. Amid all the dead termites of the EIFF, a robust white elephant starts to look pretty appealing, you know? On the occasion of the film’s theatrical run, I’ve decided to revisit it in more depth and give it the proper shit-kicking it was due.)

“I feel like I should see Slumdog Millionaire,” the man said, “just so I can fulminate against it.”

The scene was a Michael Haneke retrospective, moments before beginning a perilous exploration of The Seventh Continent, the director’s dour first feature film. The speaker was a local film studies professor—an excellent and insightful man, in fact—chatting with someone in the audience as we waited for the film to start. And while I appreciated the professor’s healthy distrust of Slumdog Millionaire (which I shared, incidentally, and which would be ratified when I finally saw that film myself), I was also struck by how disconnected we all were at that moment. Sitting in a near-empty theatre about to watch a 20-year-old film scold the modern world for being shallow and numbing—that’s a pretty comfortable spot from which to hold the plebeian masses in contempt for what they’re doing for fun on a Friday night.

In its clinical depiction of a middle-class family losing its collective mind, destroying its possessions, and then committing suicide, The Seventh Continent is in many regards a masterpiece—a masterpiece of control, of method, of concision. It is utterly precise and unflinching in cutting the heart out of its subjects, and lord is it smug. The film exudes condescension towards the spiritually impoverished, culturally bereft middle-class world—a scene of the family watching Meat Loaf sing on television is held up as exhibit A—and the surface of that world unsurprisingly begins to shrink out of view from these lofty heights of disgust. And exhibit B could easily be Slumdog Millionaire.

But perhaps it is time to put the judge on trial. By engaging so freely in oversimplified scorn and flattering the sophistication of its audience, The Seventh Continent is no less pandering than the easily derided crowd-pleaser. The worst impulse that Haneke provokes in any audience—which I contend with even as I admire his often impressive cinematic mastery—is the sense that we are above the subjects, not watching our own lives laid bare but rather witnessing some contemptible strangers. Anyone willing to enter this audience is allowed to share in that same superiority towards banal middle-class existence, and the more people outside the walls the better. The Seventh Continent is a devastating film, and it only grows in power as its audience shrinks.

What then can we make of The White Ribbon, Haneke’s latest film, anointed with a Palme d’Or at Cannes and Academy Award nominations in Hollywood? With its historical subject matter, immaculate black-and-white visuals, and somber sense of import, the film seems poised to achieve the middlebrow respectability denied more punishing curios like The Seventh Continent. Certainly, Haneke has strained against the limits of his audience before, as evidenced by his American remake of Funny Games, the fourth-wall tapping essay on cinematic violence that originally helped make his reputation on the international scene. The White Ribbon may simply represent Haneke’s latest strategy for sneaking in front of a larger audience, all the better to display his contempt for their lack of taste and intelligence (excusing, of course, their willingness to see his films).

Consider me skeptical. Haneke has never been the sort of filmmaker you bring home to mother. This is a man whose most famous thesis statement is the remark, “I’m trying to rape the viewer into independence.” At first blush, this might sound like the talk of an uncompromising provocateur, but you could just as easily reply that anything where both parties are willing can’t really be called rape (there are all sorts of funny games played between consenting adults).

More importantly, how can any plausible theory of liberation be built around domination and power? The contradiction in The White Ribbon is that it allows us complete freedom to draw whatever conclusions we want—that Haneke will allow.

Set just before the First World War, the film explores the effect a series of unexplained violent acts have on a small German village. A hidden wire trips a horse, breaking the arm of its rider. A bird is pierced with a pair of scissors. A mentally challenged boy is blinded. Much has been made of the film’s conspicuous lack of resolution—something of a Haneke trademark by this point. In interviews, the director demurs when asked to clarify his intentions by arguing that his explanations would only interfere with the interpretations of the audience. This would make much more sense if the film’s ambiguity were actually ambiguous. We know, on some level, that the children of the village are responsible for these acts, even if the specifics are never established. The conclusions are clear from the start, the unresolved questions strictly rhetorical.

A more traditional resolution would involve the separation of the guilty from the innocent. Haneke sidesteps this simply by making everyone in the town guilty in an abstract, we’re-all-monsters sort of way—except, of course, for the victims and the narrator, none of who display anything less than untrammeled innocence. On the other hand, most of the key authority figures in the town are treated as downright villainous, from the incestuous doctor (also engaged in a self-flagellating Bergmanesque affair with the town midwife) to the fanatical priest who has constructed a neat little hell of guilt and shame for his children. It’s a rather specious ambiguity that can contain so many clean divisions between good and evil.

Only rarely does Haneke find interesting notes to sound in this otherwise monotonous film. The scene where the priest lectures his adolescent son on the dangers of masturbation is genuinely funny, with the solemnity of the characters contrasted with the earnest absurdities being spoken (pustules?). But Haneke ends the scene with a glib cut to the doctor and midwife in mid-coitus—another, more advanced form of sexual shame and self-abuse to be found in the village. There is a similarly snide transition at another point when the film cuts from a sweet, fumbling song played by the teacher to—what else?—a pigpen. All humour and lightness brought down with a burst of brute grunts.

To judge by this film, sexual repression and violent conformity lie at the root of any oppressive fanatical order—well, no shit. Haneke’s analytical distance is supposed to allow us to see reality more clearly, but there are dangers to his method. Pull back too far and the observations become too general, too superficial, and too inconsequential. You cease to comment on life. Unwilling to be swayed by bourgeois concepts like emotion, Haneke follows his rigid thesis from start to finish without learning anything new about his subjects. They run his maze, but what does that prove, other than that Haneke knows how to construct a maze?

In the final shot, we watch the entire town filter into a church at the break of the First World War. Our guide, the teacher, is gone by this point—sent off to war, he tells us in his narration, speaking in a wizened voice that assures us he survived the ordeal. The crowd is surely meant to form a mirror image of the theatre audience watching at that very moment. As we look into that reflection, we are meant to feel dread and contempt at the wicked, wicked masses that have built such a cruel society. But that old superiority comes flooding back in. We see ourselves as the teacher, someone innocent and aloof, not part of the crowd, but somewhere far away, safe and distant.

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