Saturday, December 26, 2009
Cast: Christian Friedel, Burghart Klaußner, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Proxauf, Rainer Bock, Susanne Lothar
Director: Michael Haneke
Runtime: 141 min.
Verdict: God I hate theory classes. Especially the ones where I am not convinced.
Genre: Crime, Mystery, Drama
If you know exactly what you’re going to say before you say it, why bother?
- Errol Morris
Mr. Haneke is a teacher. Always been one. Self-righteousness is his currency. Mr. Haneke doesn’t so much as argue his case as much putting his foot down and raising a banner and shouting it in your face – this IS how it is, no two ways about that. He is not open for a debate. I suspect, he might not even be enthusiastic to have his point refuted. He is a teacher, I say again. That the narrator in The White Ribbon is one too, a school teacher in this case, is by no means a coincidence. Two shots betray this I-have-it-all-figured-out-buddy instinct.
The Pastor’s two kids, Karla and Martin, have erred, and this is the day of their punishment. A set of twenty cane-whips await them. Mommy has made two white ribbons, one each for the sinful meanderers, and they shall be tied until the Pastor and his wife are sure that the kids have regained the purity and innocence, and they would stray no more. These guys are so formal the punishment is a ritual, performed a good twenty-four hours after the supposed crime has been committed. I once didn’t turn up at home after a half day, indulging in a little cricket, and my mom didn’t waste any time in reminding me the law of the land. I mean, twenty-four hours is hope. People sleep, and work, and meet new people, and the anger might subside. And if the anger still exists, and you still get the punishment, boy, your parents sure are a nasty breed.
Which is what the Pastor is. He works and performs, not like a man, but as an institution. And I digress. I was talking about the two shots. First up, the ritual is about to begin, as mommy, with the ribbons in her hand calls out the two kids. They arrive. She accompanies them to the concerned room, and inside the Pastor stands, alongwith the other kids who perform the service of witnesses. The camera, which starts to follow the mom and the two miscreants through the hallway to the door, stops. We only know about the Pastor and the other kids because that is what has been communicated to us a day before in a scene before. The door opens, everybody goes in, the door closes, and the camera is still in the hallway. It is still. So still it almost feels contaminated by the austerity around. And since we have seen thousands of movies before, we know the camera is waiting for something to happen. You see, dear reader, if a shot lingers on, there is something that will happen. Otherwise, there would be a cut. Mr. Haneke knows that too, and since he already knows what he is saying, and the nature of his argument, he simply finds it needless to venture inside. And the script here doesn’t disappoint. Out comes the little boy, and the camera follows him, and he walks into a room, and out he comes with the cane in his hand (which I bet is sacred too), and the camera follows him back through the hallway into the punishment chamber. And this time, the shot doesn’t linger, for we hear a few despairing cries of pain. And cut.
Shot number two. Little Rudi is out of his bed in the middle of the night and is searching for his elder sister. Mr. Haneke strategically places the camera in front of the staircase. Rudi walks down, crying out his sister’s name, and ventures to the right of the camera. The camera only turns right, but doesn’t follow young Rudi. You see, it knows where it is intended to go. Rudi then goes some other place and the camera still doesn’t waiver from its position. In our capacity as experienced movie-goers we are aware that who he is looking for, and what they are upto is something that isn’t going to pan out where Rudi stands presently. He needs to come back to the camera, and he needs to go the predetermined spot, open the predetermined room, so that the shot can cut to inside the room. And so it happens. The Doctor, i.e. Rudi’s father, and Rudi’s sister are, well, indulging in a bit of taboo. Moral codes are being broken, you see.
So, what is Mr. Haneke professing this time around? I think I should use the teacher’s own words. You see, there’s no point in angering him. The White Ribbon, Mr. Haneke says, is about the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature. After theorizing about the nature of the mind that propagates situations like Abu Gharaib and equating them to gratuitous violence in films in Funny Games, Herr Professor ventures into the absolute root of it all. Er, beep. Beep. Wrong word. Venture it certainly is not. Mr. Haneke has built his theory on an idea, and it is this idea that is pretending to be a story on the screen. The idea is that terrorism, or fascism, or our favorite Nazism, is not something out of the ordinary but a systematic product of sexual repression and stringent moral guidelines. It is the whole society that is responsible. And blah. I think you get the picture.
You see, dear reader, I believe it too. To put it simply, most of the world’s problems, including terrorism, would be solved or at least scaled down drastically if enough people got laid, and didn’t venture into frustration. This pent-up frustration, is more often than not, is loneliness and sexual in nature. I once again invoke Taxi Driver, that profound work of art. It is profound, and it is art, because it deals with the human nature not by resorting to broad strokes of academic and Freudian psychoanalysis, but by dwelling deep into it, and digging deeper.
Mr. Haneke, well he is the professor, and since he is the one who knows-it-all, he constructs not characters, and since he is one of the best filmmakers we have he certainly doesn’t resort to clichés and caricatures. Instead he invokes archetypes, each representing a stratum of a society, and then presents his story as a theory. And herein lay the problem of The White Ribbon. Mr. Haneke has already pre-decided his story and pre-decided his characters. His characters do not grow, and hence the film becomes a sort of newsreel. We are never given cause and effect, or rather, we never are convinced that the effects are caused by the said events, and said practices. We just listen to an impeccably narrated and hugely involving newsreel.
That isn’t a very convincing way of putting forth an argument, you see, because for us to be convinced, we got to feel that the effect is because of the said cause. Impossible with archetypes, although it has to be said the performances are exemplary. The script is a product of a flawed, and even a false construction. It shows the effects first, and then shows the causative surroundings second, and then reveals the whos. Now, there’s an appreciable connection to be felt between 2 and 3, but there is no connection that leads to 1. How would 2 and 3 combine to draw human nature to do 1 is never addressed by the script. It is taken in as a huge assumption within the theory. You see, The White Ribbon works fantastically as a whodunit but that is not what Mr. Haneke is gunning for. The idea had been conceived as a three-part mini-series. That might have given Mr. Haneke more time, and more space to let his characters breathe.
Yet I understand The White Ribbon, and agree with its stance. That Mr. Haneke structures it as a whodunit is a masterstroke, and not to explicitly lay the guilt on any single party is another. Direct or indirect, the guilt is collective, and the cycle is vicious. If only the film had given us an inner glimpse of Martin and Klara. Maybe Klara. Like Elephant. Like Paranoid Park. Like Stand By Me. And shredded just a wee bit of self righteousness. Tough to ask from a Haneke film. The irony is that if there ever was a film where self righteousness was the key, this is it.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 9:21 PM