15 February, 2010Issue 11.3Film & TV

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Beyond Good and Evil

Jane Han

The White RibbonMichael Haneke
The White Ribbon (Das Weiße Band)
Filmladen, 2009
144 minutes

A few years ago in an interview, filmmaker Michael Haneke used the phrase “emotional glaciation” to describe the particular froideur that characterizes his Brechtian style—long takes, detached perspectives, little resolution, and the dearth of pleasure we equate with the slam-dunk glee of a blockbuster film. Despite his efforts to dispel this easy tag, the term has been associated with his films ever since.

Haneke’s latest effort, the recent Cannes Palm d’Or winner The White Ribbon (Das Wei√üe Band) is no exception. Shot in razor-sharp black and white and composed in static frames and austere compositions, the film employs his signature restraint to portray the calcifying moral values of a small village in Germany. Not long ago, the filmmaking world was compelled to undergo a re-examination of auteur-filmmaking in the nearly simultaneous loss of Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, a quandary now compounded by the recent passing of another canonical filmmaker, Eric Rohmer. Haneke’s The White Ribbon may be the most assured answer to the gap left in the wake of their absence.

At first glance, the film’s concerns seem culturally specific, perhaps even parochial. A period piece set in the years just before World War I, The White Ribbon painstakingly depicts particular aspects of “German-ness”. Indeed, the film comes down to the precision of its regional detail—in a casting search that spanned Europe, there were allegedly no fewer than 7,000 auditions for the role of just a handful of children. The result is a story told as much by the striking physiognomy of hard, Lutheran visages as by the terse, wooden dialogue.

In this sense, The White Ribbon is a bracing look at the morals of the old country. The film portrays a community still caught in the throes of feudal hierarchies, severe patriarchy (one character warns, “Women. Don’t take them too seriously.”), and brusque, matter-of-fact judgments (another exclaims, “My God, why don’t you just die?”). It is a world of unambiguous values, where rationality, rule, and law are the prevailing orders and Kant’s categorical imperative is taken to its dogmatic extremities.

In this particular village, the old ruse of religion is especially shown to be a case of errant dogmatism, as rigid ecclesiastical values draw strict lines between good and evil. In one of the most harrowing scenes, a father in priestly garb reprimands his young son, Martin, for indulging in his private, sensual whims. “For months I’ve tried to bring you closer to God and make you responsible human beings”, says the father, as he unequivocally damns the act as a type of disease. Meanwhile, Martin’s face grows red from restraint. One wonders when this repressed desire will explode.

This dogmatism culminates symbolically in the white bands the children are forced to wear as a reminder of their guilt. “As everyone knows, white is the colour of innocence”, the priest decrees. But in this world of black and white, where one is seen as depraved before innocent and where repentance is the perpetual goal, thwarted emotions and desires degenerate into strange behavior. Crimes begin to happen left and right—the doctor’s horse is tripped by a carefully planted wire in his front yard; a barn burns down mysteriously in the middle of the night; and Martin teeters on the perilous plank of a bridge, after which he confesses, “I gave God a chance to kill me but he doesn’t want me to die.” All the while, the children gather around in clone-like formations and watch the events with stony impassivity.

There are, as one would expect, a few figures who oppose the unbending strictures of the village. One comes in the painful guise of Karli, the village doctor’s mentally handicapped child. Due to his affliction, Karli cannot be made to follow the rule of reason or to repress his emotions. When he falls victim to one of the terrible crimes, he screams out in primal pain. The effect is searing, standing out as one of the film’s few moments of genuine emotional release.

In this scene, Karli represents the affective qualities so missing in the village’s moral code, what Nietzsche would call the “subtle, mad, divine” qualities which keep a society from calcification and degeneration. This affective quality is also preserved by the story’s two protagonists—Eva and the schoolteacher, whose budding romance, while awkward and stilted, stands as the sole testament to the vital, variable, and elusive necessity of human emotions. For, as Nietzsche said, “Whatever is done from love always occurs beyond good and evil.”

While the cultural specificity of the film can be rooted in a long tradition of German intellectual history, or what many have attempted to define as the “German character”, the story’s folk-tale framework, complete with a friendly, grandfatherly narrator, suggests its larger allegorical implications. One popular reading interprets it as a critique of the ideological excesses that could have given rise to fascism.

Yet, the complexity and scope of the narrative suggests that its focus lies beyond narrow cultural concerns. For what ultimately inspires these demons of doctrine is the rejection of the varieties and complexities of the human character. In this regard, The White Ribbon is finally a fable against the dangers of dogma—the dogma of religious extremism as well as the zealotry of capitalism. Considered in this light, one can see how The White Ribbon expands far beyond the parochial concerns of a specific cultural study or an easy allegory on the ills of nazism.

In the end, contrary to its critics’ claims, the film does not impart a sense of emotionless froideur, nor is it meant to be yet another brutally pessimistic view of human nature. In line with Haneke’s belief that such an experience can make an audience more sensitive, this modern masterpiece incites our sensibilities against the ills it portrays. Consequently, The White Ribbon exhibits one of Haneke’s most assured and striking uses of his austere style and critical eye.

Jane Han is reading for a DPhil in Fine Art at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art.