Oct 10, 2009

New York Film Festival: The White Ribbon

On the way to Lincoln Center to see Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, I was surprised to read the opening of Kafka's Metamorphosis on a poster, a fitting prelude to the movie I was about to see. Not because The White Ribbon is a surrealist tale (nothing could be more terrifyingly real). But because, like Metamorphosis, The White Ribbon is a fable.
As I sat in the darkness looking at the stunning black & white images, my expectations were deflated. I had read the gushing piece by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, and attended a talk by Haneke before the movie, where Darren Aronofsky asked him questions about the film. At times the movie felt long, a little heavy handed, and manipulative (this is always the case with Haneke), and I missed the horrible feeling of dread that his movies provoke (it was there, but not as intensely as I expected).
However, I wake up today and this movie is slapping me full force in the face. I realize that yesterday I may have been resisting its impact. I can't get this film out of my mind. The more I think of it; the more I think of it.
Usually, movies about evil deal mostly with individual agents. There is a bad seed that for very specific reasons inflicts harm on the community. This one bad apple gets destroyed (or in the case of franchises, keeps coming back), but it is just one evil entity, which allows us to go home at night and summon sleep. When evil multiplies, it's usually in the form of armies of zombies, or hostile aliens or ghosts; nothing to really worry about. Michael Haneke's films deal with real human evil, not our cathartic, cartoony fantasies of it, but the comparison is apt because The White Ribbon is a highly evolved version of what could be called The Bad Spawn. In this particular case, German children living in a bucolic village on the eve of WWI.
When confronted with the probing intelligence of this film, one must resist the urge to find simplistic explanations. Audiences tear their hair out with films like this or Cache. They interpret the masterful, unsustainable tension and dread as genre, and they demand unequivocal conclusions and neatly tied endings. This, Haneke refuses to give. One, he is more interested in the why and the how of who did it. And two, he refuses to let our consciences rest. With Haneke you can never say "it's only a movie". With him it's "I will show you what we are made of. Ignore at your own risk".
At the talk, Aronofsky kept pressing the director for clues, which of course, he never disclosed. After seeing the movie I can tell you that I know with absolute certainty who committed the disturbing, increasingly violent crimes that unsettle this regimented little village. In fact, the clues are there from the first shot. But if you are expecting to single out someone in particular, you are missing the point of the film. And from here on, I am issuing a humongous SPOILER ALERT.

Here's a microcosm of German society, but also of human society. Male figures of authority anchor this town. There is a baron landowner, for which most peasants work, there's a doctor, who tends to the people, there is a schoolteacher, and there is a pastor, who is the de facto moral authority of the town. Women are wives, childbearers, caretakers, they feed and love the children. The children are a motley crew of angelical looking little Germans, some very young and some reaching puberty. They go to school, they sing in the choir at church, they amble around town in their free time, a gaggle, a gang.
At first sight, this town is the epitome of peaceful social order. It is a rigid order, and as always, unfair, but nobody challenges their station in life. However, when someone eventually protests perceived injustice, his family is ostracized.
The pastor, who has two preteen kids and a bunch of little ones, is a rigid and unforgiving man. His wife seems warm and nice, but she has abdicated all authority to her husband. The pastor lives and rules by the oversimplified, manichean convictions of his faith. His use of human psychology is nil. He uses dogma, not reason, nor common sense, nor pity, nor his own eyes and ears to mete out judgment. His pronouncements seem dictated from above, and since they are limited to impossible moral absolutes, they are unjust and blind, and utterly damaging.
His children take it on the chin. How could they fight back?
Yet, unsettling things start to happen. First a dangerous prank makes the doctor's horse trip, sending the doctor to the hospital for weeks. Then, leisurely, more signs appear of increasing cruelty and violence.
Meanwhile, the schoolteacher, whose aged voice recounts the strange events years later, falls in love with a lovely young woman and courts her.
I cried once in the film, and it was in a tender scene between the two. Who knew Michael Haneke was capable of such tenderness and delicateness?
To say it bluntly, the lovers represent reason and decency, which hand in hand make civilization, a construct that needs no orders from above. However, even them, whose love is pure and right, are curtailed by her father, who with good intentions, but rather arbitrarily, sets a distance of a year to allow his daughter to marry her suitor. By the time the year has passed, the teacher is conscripted to the coming war. This is a repressive social order that insists on hindering love.
Then, when the doctor comes back from his convalescence, he turns out to be a monstrous human being.
And the innocents suffer, not knowing how to protect their fragile psyches from the total abuse of power, repression, and attempts at mind control; and next, they take their myriad humiliations out on those who are even weaker than them. Whoever is committing the horrible acts, there are certainly others that are complicit with silence and fear. The violence, of which only the aftermath is seen on screen, is brutal and unspeakable. The torch of cruelty and abuse is passed seamlessly from the adults to the children.
At first, I was annoyed by what seemed like a lame excuse for malfeasance, the kind you hear from Dr. Phil: poor Germans, they had a horrid childhood. But this is not the point of the film.
In an American movie, perhaps the kids would have banded together in the name of justice and freedom led by a fearless and handsome little hero, and shown the adults their comeuppance in a way that would have filled our hearts with pride for the human race.
But this is Mr. Haneke, and this is a parable of the psychology of totalitarianism, and of how evil blossoms, not individually, but communally, poisoning society in its entirety. In this case, it happens in Germany, aided by the confluence of a rigid mindset, a stern, pitiless religion, and an unfortunate national fetish with authority. I remembered Downfall, the movie about the last days of Hitler, and how those loyal to him, and the Nazi propaganda machine, saw him as the Father of the nation, a father who lords over every detail of his children's lives like an insane god. All totalitarian rulers act imperiously and randomly, like unpredictable fathers, countenancing dissent from no one (see Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Castro, Ceaucescu, the Ayatollahs...).
Thus, it is no small matter that the divide between men and women in this film is so extreme. The doctor abuses the women in his life, the baron thinks he holds total control over his wife. The women are relegated to unquestioning obedience. Nobody thinks they are worth anything or they have anything of import to say. This oppression of women is a sign of barbarism.
However, the most disturbing aspect of the film is the children. There are instances of otherworldly, heartbreaking innocence in some of the younger kids. Of course, Haneke sets it up so that you spend your time dreading the harm that may come to these children. The psychology of children in this movie is one of the most accurate and realistic ever committed to film, and because of it, very disturbing. I could write paragraphs about the questions it raises on the concept of innocence alone. Can children be innocent and commit unspeakable acts? What constitutes innocence and when and how and why exactly is it lost?
The final scene of the movie is perhaps the most chilling thing I've ever seen.
It takes place in the church; a frontal, flat shot, as in an old photograph. The farmers and the community sit in the pews below. The pastor takes his place among them. Hovering above the congregation are the children, lined up for the choir. War is about to start. These kids who are now literally on top, are about to be further humiliated by the ravages of war, and when they blossom into adulthood by the 1930's, they will be eating, breathing and, given their brutal pasts, most likely perpetrating Nazism.

1 comment:

  1. I just saw this film and agree with everything you've said. It was brilliant and powerful. And so resonant with events happening today.