The Audience, The Accused: Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon

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In both the original and the American remake of Funny Games, Michael Haneke, always the gracious host, invites us to the theater for what has become known as torture porn, only to scold us for showing up, for enjoying ourselves, and for eating all the popcorn. The film, in which two teenaged boys wreak havoc upon a married couple and their son, unfolds like any other house-invasion story, until a “surprising” moment reminds us of our roles as voyeurs: the film rewinds. The joke is on us. That type of irony isn’t ingratiating, specifically to us Americans, unapologetic consumers of mass-entertainment, who don’t like it when a man atop a high horse comes across the Atlantic to lecture us about our viewing habits, in our own theaters and in our own homes, especially if the messenger speaks in a foreign tongue and looks like a white-bearded wizard.

This is the knock on Haneke, a gifted artist with the visual chops of Bresson and Tarkovsky, but at heart a film-theorist and cultural-critic. Fair enough. Even in films less devoted to a critique of cinema, Cache and Code Unknown, for example, there seems to be a misplacement of artistic intentions. The problem lies not in how Haneke forces us to question, to examine, and to reexamine what we see, but in his insistence on reminding us that he’s a serious artist and by nature a contrarian: Do you see? Do you see how my films are different than Hollywood films?

Fortunately, The White Ribbon, the Austrian director’s first German-language film since the original Funny Games, allows Haneke to marry his masterful style with a subtler point of the finger. The best evidence of this is the film’s nomination in the best foreign film category at the upcoming Academy Awards. Already the winner of the Golden Globe, the film should win the Oscar, which considering Haneke’s anti-Hollywood stance, may surprise some viewers.

A whodunit set in a German village before the outset of WWI, the film turns what looks to be innocent and routine into something ominous and unsettling. Take the opening, a routine establishing shot of a figure riding his horse, from the distance, toward an unmoving camera. There is no cut, and the shot’s duration makes us uneasy as we watch the rider’s long approach. Finally, the horse trips on an unseen wire tied between two trees. The figure, a doctor, falls, breaks a shoulder, and the horse, as we see later, dies and is dragged off.

That puts in motion a series of incidents that grow in number along with the members of the accused. Haneke takes great care to make us suspicious of everyone. The story you are about to see, the unnamed narrator tells us, may or may not be hearsay. And it’s not until later when we learn the narrator’s identity, a minor and subtle choice which again makes us question his honesty, if only briefly. The mouthpiece fits the mold of the unreliable narrator, though his job as the visiting schoolteacher marks him with outsider status. The question is: should we trust him?

We ask that question of most characters. Through repetition, the predominance of faces fills the air with suspicion. Everyone, from children to adults, deserves a look-over. And as the incidents accrue, what seemed liked an innocent prank begins a chain of events that may or may not be connected: a destroyed cabbage patch, a murder or a suicide, the beating of a boy or two, a barn burning.

At first, the causal links seem simple. The trip wire is the work of children. The destruction of a cabbage patch is the act of farmer’s loyal and angry son who is avenging the death of his mother caused by a baron’s malfeasance. When the villagers find the baron’s son beaten, common sense would lead you to the farmer’s son, but he has an airtight alibi. And when the farmer is found dead, who did it? Did he hang himself in shame? Did his son kill him? Was it the baron or a crony? And who burned the baron’s barn? And so on. The complexity of the plot—the multiple causes for every effect—leads to purposeful dead-ends.

At every turn, Haneke plays with our expectations made numb by heavy doses of Hollywood’s methods: employing causal logic, identifying with characters, and finding motivations for their actions. Even when he does offer clear causes and effects—he shows us the culprit(s) in action—our inability to form an obvious link between these and other events only reinforces the notion that nothing is as simple as it seems. The same goes for the characters. We want to damn the pastor who coldly receives his son holding a wounded bird, but in a subsequent scene, the pastor fights back tears as the son offers his beloved bird as solace.

The effect here is there is no ideological getaway car. A local problem, you say? The limited visual style slowly expands to include shots of the landscape beyond the village. We can’t blame this on small village ignorance. Could we say it’s the effect of a bad social structure? Well, the baron is a somewhat sympathetic character: his son is beaten, and his wife finds a lover when she flees with the kids to Italy. The film, thankfully, deflates our ideological muscles.

What Haneke does is transform an allegorical tale about the rise of fascism into a profound look into human nature. We see, or better yet, we experience how silence has destructive consequences. Because the film expands from the individual to the local to the global (with the news of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination), the silence, the real villain here, isn’t custom to a specific time and place. Left with a spool of loose ends, all of us, even the innocent, are made accomplices. We too are sitting on our hands when the sound drops to silence. The wrongdoer(s) could be anyone or everyone.