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The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke and authorial intent.

12:00 AM, Feb 19, 2010 • By SONNY BUNCH
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A black and white period piece set in Germany in the year before the outbreak of World War I, The White Ribbon is a look at the formative events of the generation that would go on to form the Third Reich in the years after this picture. In a recent interview with Cineaste, Austrian director/provocateur Michael Haneke was asked about his thoughts on the meaning of his latest film, The White Ribbon.

The interviewer told the director, “The film does point towards a certain path of self-destruction.” In reply, Haneke says:

This is your own interpretations. Everyone needs to make his or her own decision here. The film itself says nothing about fascism. We simply depict a group of children who absolutize the ideals preached to them by their parents. On the basis of these absolute ideals, the children judge their parents. And when they realize that the parents do not live by the rules they preach, the children punish the parents. This is the story being told. But because of the generation to which the children belong, it acquires another context, another meaning. But I deliberately steered clear of engaging with fascism in any way.

This is, to put it mildly, bunk: Haneke’s clearly making a point in this movie about the poisonous nature of religious fundamentalism – in this case, Lutherism – and the effect it has on the children of this German town. The “context” that it “acquires” thus necessarily says a great deal about fascism and its roots, at least as it relates to Germany during the first half of the twentieth century.

In arguing his point, Haneke engages in one of the more annoying tics that so many filmmakers embrace: false ambiguity. There’s no question that Haneke is making a point here – his films always have a point – so why run from it? Why not simply come out and say, “Yes, this is a film that suggests religious fundamentalism has a great deal to do with embracing fascism?” 

There’s really very little doubt that this is what Haneke wants to say in his picture. Set in a German village between 1913 and 1914, The White Ribbon is nominally centered on a school teacher, who also serves as the narrator. At the beginning of the picture, the narrator informs us that he is looking back on a series of strange events in his village during the years before the First World War because “they may cast a new light on some of the goings-on in this country.”

The real focus of the film is on the town’s children, however: The way they interact with each other and their parents; the effect that the strict Lutheran priest who dominates the spiritual scene has on them; the way in which the hypocrisy of their parents comes to inform their actions. The aforementioned “strange events” grow more brutal as the film progresses. First a trip wire is set to take down the town doctor while his horse is at full gallop, later a retarded child is blinded in order to punish the boy’s mother.

To deny what is so obvious in the viewing of the film strikes me as, well, odd. It’s not the first time Haneke has tried to create a sense of false ambiguity during an interview. When asked about the remake of Funny Games – which is nothing if not a scathing critique of the way audiences both accept and revel in casual violence at the movies – he told Entertainment Weekly that “I actually never give interpretations of my own films. It is up to the film critics and the audience to do their own interpretations.”

It’s one thing when a director is comfortable making an ambiguous film and then refusing to divulge his own interpretation of it in order to avoid contaminating the way others feel about it. As far as I know, Stanley Kubrick never ventured his opinion about what the end of The Shining truly “meant.” There’s a legitimate ambiguity in that haunting final shot: Has Jack Torrance been subsumed by the evil that lives within the Overlook Hotel, or had he actually been there before?

But there are no such difficulties with Mr. Haneke’s films, The White Ribbon included. He’s making a point – and usually making it quite well, even considering the obvious and sometimes ham-handed ways in which he tries to do so. Why not just ‘fess up and take ownership of the message of his picture?

Sonny Bunch writes about politics and culture at Conventional Folly.

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