Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Children's Crusade

Our gang: the kiddie cabal of The White Ribbon.

I first encountered Michael Haneke in 1999, over a decade ago, when I rented (on a dare) his 1997 provocation, Funny Games. I'd been told it was the most horrifying movie ever made; and at the time, it sure felt like it - I was spooked for days. But I was mostly freaked because I'd realized as I was watching it - in a classic iteration of the myth of genius working its way up through schlock - that Haneke was the most interesting director on the planet. I quickly tried to track down his earlier films - but literally none were available on video, and he'd rarely been shown in Boston; someone at the Harvard Film Archive told me that they had screened Benny's Video once, a year or two earlier, but that "People hated it - it's sick."

And that was the rap on Haneke for years - particularly from American critics. To me, he was Kubrick's heir, but to most film writers - who perhaps subconsciously understood that Haneke (a former critic himself) represented the antithesis of the Pauline-Kael "school" of reviewing - the director was a sadist, a cold fish, and a creep. When I was writing for the Globe, I begged them to allow me to do a phone interview with the director regarding Time of the Wolf, but they weren't really interested - and when I bumped into a Phoenix critic at a screening of the movie, he snorted at my enthusiasm. "Haneke's not going anywhere," he laughed.

But the director has, actually, gone somewhere: his latest, The White Ribbon, just won a Golden Globe, and will probably win an Oscar. Caché, from four years ago, counts as an art house "hit," and he has worked with many of Europe's greatest actors and actresses. His own shot-by-shot remake of Funny Games - though perhaps an artistic misstep - at least helped expand his profile in America. And that new stature shows in The White Ribbon, which boasts a large cast, a superb production design, perhaps the most striking photography of the year, and even the occasional digital effect. Indeed, the film's lustrous look (by Christian Berger), which recalls the miracles Sven Nykvist used to wreak for Ingmar Bergman, is no doubt partly responsible for its success, and Haneke's continued ascent: The White Ribbon looks just like an "art film" is supposed to look.

Of course even with these expanded means, a Haneke film remains small potatoes commercially (Caché had a $4 million U.S. gross). But let's be honest: the days when an art house director could reach the same audience as Frederico Fellini once did have long since passed. Many of my educated, professional friends still haven't even heard of Haneke. And that's the way it's going to remain. "Indie" cinema has replaced art cinema, and the people who used to see Bergman and Kurosawa are now satisfied with the thin, whimsical, quirky-but-derivative milk of Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze.

Not that Haneke has quite the same mojo as Bergman or Kurosawa. Along with directors like Sokurov and Kiarostami (and maybe Fatih Akin), Haneke is keeping film alive as an art form, but it's nevertheless in a weakened state. Or perhaps it's just that in White Ribbon, Haneke's usual power seems slightly diffuse. The film is in many ways a kind of summation, as it draws together themes from his entire oeuvre, and places them in one of the exploratory, open-ended settings he favored in Time of the Wolf and Code Unknown - films which are partially concerned with questioning even their own premises. But this time around Haneke has been so restrained in what he's willing to definitively show us that his film, while mostly absorbing, is never quite gripping.

His premise feels a bit like it could have formed the basis of a good science fiction yarn - except that it has been projected backward into history. In a bucolic German village, just prior to the opening shots of World War I, a mysterious set of vengeful events takes place. The town doctor is thrown from his horse by a tripwire; the son of the local baron is abducted and beaten; a barn is burned; a handicapped child is nearly blinded. Haneke threads the tale of these seemingly random crimes through an ongoing exploration of the power dynamics of the town, and especially the punitive aspects of the local patriarchy. In The White Ribbon, women are silenced, and the normal acting-out of the young - the occasional skuffle, the angry snit, the furtive attempt at masturbation - are severely punished by the town fathers. "Purity" is extolled, and punishment administered - and met with silent, resentful acquiescence. And, of course, that ongoing series of "motiveless" crimes.

There are secrets in the village, too. The doctor, we realize, is sexually abusing his daughter, and the baron's negligence may have led to the death of an elderly worker. There's more than enough injustice brewing in this hamlet to foment an outbreak of vigilantism. And indeed, we are shown some violent acts in The White Ribbon - such as the destruction of the baron's crops (below) - that have known perpetrators who have suffered real grievances.

One kind of harvest in The White Ribbon.

But "vigilantism" isn't quite what Haneke has in mind; instead, his film operates as one long, protracted hint that the town's children may actually be responsible for the horrors being visited on it. Haneke, thank God, has never been one for the sentimental worship of childhood "innocence"; in Benny's Video, a bored young boy literally slaughters a classmate, and in Funny Games, two vapid teens (named "Peter" and "Paul" - they're apostles of violence) spend the weekend murdering nice people in their summer homes for no reason whatsoever. In retrospect, the director can be seen as a kind of prophet of the child-violence we've all become inured to.

But next to these monsters, the possible villains of The White Ribbon seem almost cuddly, and at any rate we never see them at work - indeed, Haneke spends much of the film (this is clearer on a second viewing) undercutting his own supposed thesis, and demonstrating that most, if not all, of the village children could not have participated in all of the attacks. It's tempting to imagine, for instance, that the self-possessed daughter of the local pastor is some pint-sized evil mastermind, with her brother serving as guilt-ridden accomplice; these two (and their silent posse) have a creepy way of showing up unannounced to offer condolences at the scenes of various crimes. But then Haneke reveals that they've slept through the barn-burning, and other likely suspects are supplied with their own exonerating vignettes. Even when the director seems about to reveal a horrid, but petty infraction - the impalement (actually, the crucifixion) of the pastor's pet bird - he cuts away from the deed itself, so we're not absolutely sure who committed it.

Slowly it dawns on us that Haneke is hinting at some form of the collective unconscious as his true culprit. One little girl says she has dreamt in advance of two separate attacks, and the director gives us no reason to doubt her. And the crimes have a strange resonance about them; they're classic forms of scape-goating, in which the innocent, the weak and the beautiful are sacrificed by the mob. Even the pastor's crucified parakeet operates as a parody of the Christian ethic he thinks his kids are imbibing - indeed perhaps are imbibing, as their cruelties echo the underside of its philosophy. And there's something spooky about the fact that when a woman finally asserts her own power (the baroness tells her husband she is abandoning him, and the village, to protect their child), her flight is immediately interrupted by the news that the war has begun. It's too late; she will be unable to travel, or evade history.

Much has been made of the fact that the children in the picture are part of the generation that would eventually allow Hitler to take power - but that hardly means Haneke is positing a Village of the Damned or Bad Seed-style scenario, as many critics have claimed. Perhaps instead he is looking at how Christianity and the patriarchy worked together to induce the historical horrors to come. For what was the Holocaust but simply the literal working out of the anti-Semitic implications of Christian doctrine? If it was madness, then it was a form of madness for which Europe had long been rehearsing.

Not that Haneke makes that statement openly, either. Indeed, The White Ribbon perhaps belongs in a subset of his films (which must include Code Unknown and Caché) that one could call "the Cinema of Suggestion." In these carefully-constructed puzzles, Haneke suggests various social and political theses, but confirms none of them; his themes, he seems to imply, are like Juliette Binoche's apartment in Code Unknown: inaccessible without the proper knowledge, which itself can never be obtained.

Portrait of a criminal mind.

The White Ribbon ends appropriately, then, with its mysteries intact; for a moment, it seems the town midwife is about to reveal the identity of the perpetrators, but she and her son subsequently vanish, and the schoolteacher, who has made his own guesses, is disbelieved and silenced. The film then concludes with a long, static shot (above) of the entire village filing into church for some sort of ceremony - perhaps Whit Sunday, or Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles (although for some reason the pastor doesn't take to the altar - is someone else, or something else, the celebrant?). Haneke has a habit of loading his parting shots with hidden meaning - the last moment of Time of the Wolf, for instance, hints at unexpected salvation, while the final image of Caché clicks shut on us like an accusation - and we realize as the director slowly fades out on the assembled villagers that somewhere in the congregation, singing along, are the criminals. That is, of course, if they aren't all criminals.

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