The White Ribbon

The film ends in the head of the viewer, not on the screen.
--Michael Haneke
Perhaps because I'd recently read L. Timmel Duchamp's interesting and thorough review of the new Library of America edition of Shirley Jackson's major works, Michael Haneke's Palm d'Or-winning film The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band), felt like a movie inspired by a Shirley Jackson story.

It is, however, very much a Michael Haneke film, though a bit of a departure from the movies he's most famous for. We still have the focus on suffering, violence, and guilt; the tone and affect is still analytical, cold, distant; mysteries remain unsolved, their solutions unimportant to an overall scheme in which what matters is not so much the mystery, but the effect of the mystery -- and yet there is a tenderness to some of these scenes that has been rare in much of Haneke's other work. Part of that comes from the large cast of characters: it would be very odd to portray an entire village without showing any people who are basically decent, or without portraying any moments of kind, even loving, emotions. But there's a thematic purpose to the moments of tenderness, too.

For instance, we see a young boy bring his cruel father, the village pastor, a bird in a cage and offer it to him as a replacement for the father's recently-killed bird because, the boy says, his father seemed so sad. The boy's performance is so affecting that it's difficult to keep a dry eye as he speaks, but it's also a moment rich with various meanings and implications. The White Ribbon is a film about the ways brutality reproduces itself, and we can't help but wonder if this boy will escape the fate the other children seem destined for: personalities hardened by the rigid ideology of sin and punishment that has so tortured them all. Yet at the same time, the boy is offering his father a bird in a cage. A small, free creature that is now trapped and owned. We think back to an earlier scene between the boy and father, one in which the boy brought an injured bird (presumably this bird) and asked if he could keep it. "How do you plan to do that?" the father asked.
BOY: We'll heal it.

FATHER: Don't you think, you’ll be attached to it then? Will you let it fly away?

BOY: Peepsie also lives in a cage.

FATHER: Yes, but Peepsie grew up in captivity. This one is used to living in freedom. Will you set him free, as soon he’s healed?
The boy nods. The pastor asks him if he's asked his mother, and the boy says yes, she said it was for his father to decide. The pastor seems a little surprised at this, or perhaps pleased that his wife is recognizing his authority. He says, "You'll really to take care of it? That’s a heavy responsibility. You know that, don’t you? Well. You're its father and mother now. We'll have to find a cage for your patient."*

The discussion holds one meaning on its own -- freedom versus captivity, parental responsibility -- especially since it comes soon after we have seen the pastor beat two of his older children for arriving home late. In this scene, it's difficult to see the pastor as anything other than a despicable man, his son as an innocent whose childhood will eventually be marred by the conjunction of his father's sense of parental responsibility and his apparent sadism. But the later scene, shot at very similar angles to this one, shows the boy sacrificing his healed, caged bird to his father so that, perhaps, his father may be happy. We do not perceive much change in the father between scenes, and what change we have seen likely doesn't cause the word "sadness" to spring to mind, but that is what the boy has seen, and he wants to fix it. He has healed the bird, and perhaps the healed bird can heal his father. (But the bird is still in a cage. If it is to be freed, as the father implied it must be, it is now his responsibility to do so. A later scene will show, unobtrusively in the background, a bird in Peepsie's cage, suggesting he chose his own pleasure at owning and caging a bird over that bird's freedom.)

It's a lovely scene, and even causes us some sympathy for the father -- if the boy, so truly innocent, can care for this horrible man, perhaps we, too, can spare him some sympathy. Interestingly, in the screenplay (PDF) provided by Sony Classics, the end of scene is described thus:
For a moment, neither of them knows what to do. Then the boy leaves the room. The pastor follows him with his eyes. Then, he sits down. He tries to keep his composure, but in the end he bursts into tears. He sobs haltingly, trying hard not let it be heard.
That's an awfully conventional, sentimental, almost Hollywood sort of end for such a scene, and Haneke, being the artist he is, did not film it as written (or may have filmed it so, but did not edit it to fit the description). Instead, the pastor gives only the barest hint of emotion toward his son's gesture, then, after the boy has left, his lips tremble slightly, he swallows, and he looks down at his desk. Cut to a shot of the outdoors seen from inside, the frame dominated by window bars that make the world seem as if it is viewed from inside a cage.

We could continue to analyze each scene of the film, and particularly their relationships within the structure of the whole, but I'm not feeling compelled to do so right now, partly because I think that's a pleasure best left to each viewer. This is a film that leaves out as much as it includes, and thus requires us as viewers to take a deliberate and active role in the meaning-making. Haneke is not the sort of filmmaker to create scenes just because he likes them or they offer an interesting opportunity for actors or because they have aesthetic value; whatever is in his films is there because it is useful to his overall thematic point. His are movies of ideas. If they offer other pleasures, then so be it, but the basic reasoning for why scenes exist and why they exist in the particular place they do is strictly thematic. This is not to say that there is only one theme, however, or that the best of Haneke's films screech that one theme at us relentlessly (my dislike of Funny Games comes from feeling that there is, in that film, only one theme, indeed a Message, and that every frame of the damned movie is determined to pound us over the head with it).

The White Ribbon offers more pleasures beyond thematic development than even my favorite of Haneke's previous films, Code Unknown (Code Inconnu). I usually find the acting and the cinematography in Haneke's work impressive, but both in The White Ribbon justify the over-used adjective stunning. Many of the main characters in the movie are children, and it is not easy to get great performances from young actors, especially in a film like The White Ribbon, which is serious and disturbing, requiring both nuance and restraint. In an interview included on the Blu-Ray edition (the DVD apparently has no extras), Haneke says his casting directors saw 7,000 children, seeking ones with both a natural ability to inhabit an imagined world and who had a certain look, one especially influenced by the photographs of August Sander. The months spent on casting paid off, because the children are some of the most compelling actors in the film, extraordinarily focused and yet also remarkably relaxed: they inhabit their roles in a way often aspired to by adult actors, but without the self-consciousness that haunts even the most wonderful adult performances.

Christian Berger won quite a few awards for the cinematography of The White Ribbon (including from the American Society of Cinematographers), and was nominated for more (including an Oscar, though the computer-created cinematography of Avatar won, demonstrating how problematic the term "cinematography" is in the digital age). Berger has called the look of The White Ribbon "modern black and white" in that it has a different tone, weight, and contrast from what something filmed directly onto b&w film has (White Ribbon was filmed on color Super-35mm, then converted to b&w in post-production). Haneke wanted the film to be in black and white to create a distancing effect for the audience, and because the look is so sharp and defined, it doesn't have the nostalgic effect that shooting on actual black and white film would have had -- the images may not look "real", but they certainly don't look like an old movie, either.

The composition of every shot, though, is so careful and evocative that just about every frame of The White Ribbon could be printed for gallery presentation. I was tempted at times to turn off the sound and the subtitles and just look at the movie, because there is much to luxuriate in in each image.

Along with the distancing effect of the black and white, Haneke uses a voiceover to further create a sense of distance from the events of the narrative. The schoolteacher tells us the story from his own old age, and he starts the film by saying that he can't vouch for the truth of it all, that some of it is based on hearsay. He begins to tell the story and says, "If I remember correctly..." We have no way to know if he does or not. We know he's an unreliable narrator because he tells us he is, but we don't know the extent of his unreliability -- what we have is his tale ... and only his tale.  Yet most viewers are used to assuming what is seen on film is "the truth", and so there is a consistent tension between our instinct that what is there in front of us is some sort of objective reality and the insistence of the narrator that he's telling a story, that maybe this is not how it all was, that memory is imperfect and the past unreachable.

The mystery at the heart of the story is not just the mystery of who caused the various accidents, disasters, and tragedies that befall the characters -- but rather the mystery of whether the items are connected at all. Maybe some of the events are connected and others aren't. Maybe none are. Some of the events seem to be punishments. Some of them are clearly the result of human action. Others, though, may just be accidents. Or they may not. We know what the schoolteacher thinks and whom he suspects, but we also know we're in his story, and his telling may stack the deck in favor of his interpretation.

The mystery is partly a religious one. The village is strictly and punishingly religious, questions of death and God arise repeatedly, the pastor is one of the main characters, and the children's chorus seems alternately beautiful and menacing. The question of the events' relationships is like questions about the existence of God and the existence of meaning in the universe. Is there a teleology? Or could the meaning we find in the events be nothing more than a meaning we impose because of our love of pattern and our desire for meaning?

Haneke has no desire to answer these questions for us. His film exists to raise the questions, to give them life and form. Viewers must come to their own conclusions.

*Dialogue adapted from the English-language screenplay available as a PDF here. The screenplay translation seems to be a bit more literal than the subtitles on the Sony Blu-Ray, and it is not a transcription of the film but rather either a late draft or a shooting script, and thus different from the finished film.

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