The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke’s pessimistic study of society – Published on WSWS, by Verena Nees, 6 January 2010.

An often fascinating film that leaves a bitter aftertaste. This is the impression left with the cinema-goer by Michael Haneke’s new film, The White Ribbon … //

… He went on to say: “I set the story in its particular era so that it might acquire an added political significance. It could just as easily have been set in an Islamic village. Of course, it would have had a different look, but the essentials would have been much the same.” When the Focus interviewer persisted in trying to pin him down to the idea that he must have seen tendencies towards evil and fascism in the whole of the northern, Protestant-educated world, Haneke declared: “My films all carry the same label—’citizens at war.’ How do we get along with each other? I really believe that major wars occur because of what has happened to us previously. This is why we’re so susceptible to them.” 

What a banal and philistine conclusion! At a time when governments, representatives of big business, and the media are beating the drum for war in Afghanistan, and the German army is committing war crimes for the first time since the Second World War, Haneke will have us believe it is the general way people relate to each other that makes wars possible. The opposite is true: the great majority of people are against war, but the ruling elite increasingly clamour for its expansion.

Haneke deliberately overlooks the connection between the concrete social and economic interests of capitalists and the two great wars of the last century. He also fails to recognise the fact that by 1913 the backwardness and false piety of village life in Germany had long since ceased to predominate, and millions of workers—who had achieved not only political, but also cultural education thanks to the Social Democratic Party—were calling for a humane, socialist society.

In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, also published October 15, 2009, Haneke made his position even clearer. Village life constitutes “a microcosm of this society, from the ruling group right to the bottom.” He wanted to make a film about “the perversion of every possible ideal when it is turned into an absolute.” Haneke further proselytised that whenever people are put under pressure, for example, as a result of their position within social structures, “they clutch at straws to free themselves from the predicament. And that will be any idea, ideal, ideology. It could be religion, but it could be something else. Usually, it doesn’t work and leads to acts of inhumanity.” This is supposed to be the hypothesis underlying the film—one that can be applied to explain German fascism, but also the “terrorism of our times…and religious fundamentalism of all colours.”

The claim that a threat to society lies in the transformation of “an idea into an ideology” or the clinging of people in crisis to “any idea, ideal or ideology” allows Haneke to avoid any investigation into specific instances of social development and to equate advanced revolutionary ideas with reactionary ideology and religious fanaticism.

The oppressed, when they resort to violence to defend themselves, are for him just as culpable as the oppressors. While the village children are portrayed as victims of religious oppression in the first half of The White Ribbon, towards the end the director concentrates on their maliciousness and intentionally tries to arouse the viewers’ disgust when the body of the handicapped child, streaming with blood, is found in the forest.

Another scene typifies this same approach. A farmer’s eldest son, whose mother lost her life in the landowner’s sawmill, expresses his rage by smashing up all the cabbages during the village harvest festival. The consequence of his deed is that his relatives are punished by the baron. His father reproaches him for putting the survival of the 14 members of his family at risk and hangs himself in despair. This is supposed to point to the moral that violence from below only leads to further violence, and so it should never happen in the first place.

Haneke belongs to a generation of filmmakers that have drawn the most pessimistic lessons from the world wars and the terror of fascism. They explain the lapse into fascist barbarism by invoking the collective guilt of the whole population, and draw the conclusion that any progressive development of humanity involving a mass social movement is impossible.

Despite the positive qualities of The White Ribbon, there is a jarring discord between the choruses of praise for the film from a wide section of the media and the disorientation it seeks to encourage within its audience. (full long text).

(The author also recommends: Michael Haneke’s Caché—The artist has not done the most difficult work [21 April 2006]).

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