The White Ribbon (which last week I named the best film of 2009) is unlike any film I saw this year, and a film that any lover of cinema should make an effort to see and think about deeply.
Directed by Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke (Cache, Funny Games), The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band) is a German-language film that is at once the most luxurious visual feast of the year and the most psychologically challenging. Set in a small agrarian German village in 1913 (in the last days of peace before WWI), where strange deaths and disturbing incidents begin to unnerve the villagers, Ribbon explores the psyche of feudal-era Germany on the brink of the chain of events that would lead them to become the most infamous example of fascism in world history. In talking about the film, Haneke has said this:
“Why do people follow an ideology? German fascism is the best-known example of ideological delusion. The grownups of 1933 and 1945 were children in the years prior to World War 1. What made them susceptible to following political Pied Pipers? My film doesn’t attempt to explain German fascism. It explores the psychological preconditions of its adherents. What in people’s upbringing makes them willing to surrender their responsibilities? What in their upbringing makes them hate?”
The beauty of The White Ribbon is that even while it tackles a huge question (the origins of fascism), it does so with the sort of hyper-subtlety and open-endedness that requires the viewer to do most of the interpretive work. We can easily recognize that Haneke is indeed making a statement about things like discipline, violence, Christianity, fear and hate, but we are left to our own psychological devices to put all the pieces together.
And indeed it is a puzzle. From the painstakingly slow fade from black that opens the film, through the 144 minutes of fragmentary, multiple-storyline episodic exposition that ends with another painstakingly slow fade to black, it is clear that Haneke is uninterested in proving us with clear or easy answers. On the contrary, he wants the audience to think. The noticeable quietness of the film (as with all of Haneke’s films, there is no soundtrack or nondiegetic music) is but one clue that Ribbon intends to invite the audience to process and create the meaning themselves.
Haneke, a former film critic who studied philosophy and psychology in Vienna, is a cerebral filmmaker interested in the cerebral processes of cinema—that is, how the mind of the spectator makes sense of what they see on screen. Haneke is doubtless familiar with the tradition in early classical film theory concerning spectatorship, in which psychologists/theorists like Hugo Münsterberg and Rudolf Arnheim argued for various interpretations of the spectator’s psychological relationship to the movies. In his 1932 text, Film as Art, for example, Arnheim (a student of Gestalt psychology) argues that the spectator’s mind is the only way “reality” can be drawn out of cinema (which is inherently unrealistic). In Arnheim’s view, film does not and cannot have a direct correlation to reality; rather, it provides a partial illusion that the spectator’s mind can then process and understand as if it were some sort of reproduction of reality.
This may seem obvious and fundamental—and indeed, the reality of our gaze and its voluntary and involuntary interpretive power is something we rarely think of in the process of seeing—but it’s nonetheless a curious power of the cinema of which Haneke is interested in forcing us to reckon. How do we see when we watch a film? What power do we have to construct the meaning of an image? Is our understanding of a film determined by the manipulative powers of the filmmakers to “control” the direction and attention of our gaze?
“When you make a film you’re manipulating the spectator,” said Haneke in a recent Newsweek interview. “If you place your camera here instead of there, you’re going to give a very different impression, so filmmaking always involves manipulation. The question is rather, to what end do you manipulate the spectator? I’ve often said that manipulation is a form of rape. The only acceptable form of rape is when you rape the spectator into autonomy, make the spectator aware of their role as a receptor, as a victim, so that they become autonomous or independent.”
At various points in The White Ribbon, Haneke spotlights the ways in which we, as the audience, are manipulated by cinema. There are certain cuts where we expect to see something and think we see something (in one case, something quite disturbing) that turns out to be something else. We question why our minds “went there.” In one scene there is a casket in which we think, but are not quite sure, we know who is inside. But we have to wonder about our assumptions, especially (at least in my case) because our assumptions are frequently proved false. Is the film really manipulating me that much? Or is my mind playing tricks on me? Why do I assume certain things?
Almost everything in The White Ribbon requires us to make psychological jumps. We have to connect the dots. None of the scenes of violence and treachery are actually shown on screen (as with, if you pay attention, Funny Games). We have to think about who does what, and why. When we see a little girl with scissors in her hand, and then a shot of a bird in a birdcage, we have to assume that she means harm to the bird. When we later see a shot of a dead bird, we connect the dots. But in Ribbon, that’s about as easy as it gets. On top of figuring out “who did what?” plot details, we also wonder about the meaning of everything. What, for example, does the symbol of the white ribbon (tied to children to “help them avoid sin”) mean? What is Haneke actually trying to say about the origins of fascism?
“I try to take the spectator seriously,” said Haneke in the Newsweek interview. “Mainstream cinema raises questions only to immediately provide an answer to them, so they can send the spectator home reassured. If we actually had those answers, then society would appear very different from what it is. My approach is rather to deal with the question, to raise the question in a way that confronts the audience with it and forces the audience to find their own responses. As a dramatist, your requirement is to do that with as much urgency as possible so the viewer feels compelled to think about the issues.”
Haneke, who elsewhere has described his films as “polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator,” is interested in making films full of ideas, but only as conjured up by the minds of the spectators whose thoughtfulness he solicits. The White Ribbon is a great example of a film in which we, the audience, are not force-fed anything but instead invited into the process of telling the story. No two people will have the same experience of this film, and it will mean different things to different people.
For me, The White Ribbon was as beautiful and brilliant a film as I’d seen all year—a Hawthorne-esque, literary examination of community, nation, and human nature. It’s a haunting, ambiguous film about the cycles of fear, paranoia, retribution and resentment at the family and local level, and how it all interacts with history both near and far.