by Brandon Colvin
When I stated that Haneke’s The White Ribbon was the best film of the festival, I wasn’t being precise: it’s also the best film of the year, at least thus far. Edging out Adventureland and Hunger for the top spot on my in-progress best-of list, The White Ribbon is one of the few films I’ve seen in recent years that immediately struck me as an outright masterpiece. Told with elegantly-composed black-and-white cinematography and delicately nuanced sonic textures, The White Ribbon is an enigmatic exploration of evil, guilt, and filial revolt set in the unassuming environment of rural 1913 Germany. The film’s plot unfolds as a series of unexplained, potentially unconnected, violent occurrences trigger a wave of fear and paranoia in a small village. In many ways, The White Ribbon is reminiscent of Haneke’s most celebrated previous work, Caché (2005), in its perpetual and inconclusive mystery, unflinching brutality, and its depiction of children wreaking havoc on adults. Even the film’s wonderful final shot seems to suggest a possibly hidden solution to the film’s unresolved crimes, as in Caché. However, more than any of Haneke’s previous films, The White Ribbon resembles the work of European masters – the sober, incisive classics that came to define “art” cinema: Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943), Bergman’s Winter Light (1962) and Shame (1968), Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1969), Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967). It would be no critical stretch for future generations to ascribe a similarly canonical status to Haneke’s film.
As the Gondola descended back down to Telluride, I found myself and my fellow festival-goers elated and perplexed by The White Ribbon’s brilliance. Conversations abounded regarding a handful of the film’s most impressive scenes and interpretive debates were immediately ignited as tall pines blurred in our darkened peripheries. Finally, a film worth arguing about! Some were shocked, some were thrilled, some were awestruck, but everyone seemed to be in agreement about one thing: we had seen the work of a master. Knowing a Symposium seminar was scheduled with Haneke the following day, my mind was frantically tossing around what question I wanted to ask him, what I would like to discuss with a man who had just confirmed himself as one of the world’s greatest living directors. The walk to my sleeping quarters from the Gondola was contemplative and solemn – no doubt Haneke’s intended effect – and, as I attempted to enjoy my precious few hours of sleep, thoughts of Bresson fluttered through my brain.
Though The White Ribbon was still occupying the forefront of my thoughts, the following morning belonged to the memory of Manny Farber. Accompanied by a rare screening of Jean Renoir’s Toni (1935) – a surprising film that has been hailed as a pre-cursor to De Sica’s brand of Neo-realism and one of the great critic’s favorite films to teach in his classes at UC-San Diego – the celebration of the late icon was incredibly heartfelt and touching. Gathered onstage at the Sheridan Opera House were Farber’s widow and frequent critical collaborator, Patricia Patterson; editor of the new collection of Farber’s writings entitled Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, poet Robert Polito; famed critic and one of my personal heroes, Kent Jones; and Greil Marcus and Robert Walsh, fellow critics and friends of Farber. The esteemed group discussed the trajectory of Farber’s critical writing, his incredible way with words and phrases, his constant curiosity, a few of his favorite films and filmmakers, his unfailing and meticulous work ethic, his involved and innovative teaching style, and the upcoming books by Walsh and Jones that focus on his previously unpublished teaching notes. All spoke with great affection for Farber, and the event was intensely emotional, moving Patricia Patterson to tears as she smiled and listened to her and her husband’s closest colleagues elaborate on his inspirational influence and remarkable talent.
After the screening and discussion, I fortuitously wandered into the merchandise tent in order to purchase the aforementioned Farber anthology (available for early sale at Telluride, releasing nationally on October 1st) just as Polito and Patterson were beginning their book signing. Shockingly, there was no line, so I walked right up to the table. Eyes still moist, Patterson spoke to me in the sweetest manner imaginable. She asked about my career ambitions and wished me luck as we discussed how wonderful the tribute was and how happy she was to see how much everyone cared for Manny. Having all of their best friends onstage to talk about him was priceless to her, she said in a quavering voice. She apologized for not knowing exactly what to write in my book, saying timidly, “This is the first time I’ve ever done this.” I told her whatever she wrote would be lovely and she smiled. Tears clung to her eyelids as she shakily finished scratching out an inscription and, flashed a look at me, and passed the book to Polito. Less intimate, Polito also asked me about my interests in film criticism and kindly suggested I drop him an e-mail as he scrawled an illegible message above Patterson’s dedication. Feeling enlivened and a bit choked up by my encounter, I began the trek across town to our meeting with Haneke.
I had my question ready. I had written it down, practiced it. As the minutes ticked away, my nervousness grew, however. I grew increasingly quiet and motionless – my typical expression of anxiety. Then he walked in the room. Silver-haired and black-clad, Haneke made his way into the room – translator close behind – with a genial smile on his face, a fact which both surprised and relaxed me. Thankfully, the man did not appear to be as severe as his films. Haneke’s affability was maintained throughout our discussion as he replied to our questions with composed, precise, and direct answers, providing strongly supported intellectual and aesthetic rationale for nearly every aspect of his films that we probed. He was the antithesis to our Alexander Payne experience, being completely open about his process and his thoughts on his work. As a result of his quick-witted, well-spoken answers, we seemed to cover more ground with Haneke than any other seminar guest, regardless of the frequent need for his translator.
Near the beginning of the discussion, I worked up the gumption to raise my hand. I was pointed to and Haneke turned to me, looking me straight in the eye where I sat on the front row. I had decided on my question once I went over some Bresson research I had been working on, namely, an essay Haneke has written on Bresson in which he observed, “Reduction and omission become the magic keys to activating the viewer. In this respect, it is precisely the hermetic aspects of Bresson’s works that seek to make the spectator’s role easier: it takes him seriously.” The transition into this Bresson-based question was made all the better by the fact that Haneke had just finished explaining why there was no score in The White Ribbon, citing the same ideas Bresson elaborates upon in Notes on the Cinematographer (1975) – there is no score in real life, the music should be the natural sounds of the film abstracted into art. Fortunately, Haneke maintained eye contact with me throughout his answer as he was able to respond without translation. I’ll try to paraphrase my question and Haneke’s response as accurately as possible:
ME: You just mentioned your opinions on sound, which remind me very much of Robert Bresson’s, whose influence you have often admitted as being very important to your work. In fact, in an essay you wrote about Bresson, you say that ‘reduction’ and ‘omission’ give his films their power and I feel that the same is true for yours, especially The White Ribbon. Can you elaborate on why this reservation of information is so important to you creatively and what effect you feel it has in your own films?
HANEKE: First, you are absolutely right about Bresson. He is certainly my number one influence, above all others. Watching his films taught me how to make films myself. There is no one else like him for me. And, second, I feel it is important not to show everything, to make the viewer work, to engage his mind. The more the viewer has to imagine, the greater the film will be because it will contain only suggestion, but a suggestion that the viewer will turn into something meaningful to himself. For example, you can use a sound to suggest something that you do not show. In a horror film, maybe, someone will show a killer coming up the stairs, but why? It is more effective to only hear the creaking of the stairs [moves his hands as if they are going up steps] and be forced to imagine the killer coming. The imagination will always be more powerful than the image. And this makes the audience an important part of the film’s meaning. So there are questions that, as a filmmaker, you should not answer in your film. [pause] Is that okay?
Looking back at him, wide-eyed, I nodded. He had just told me I was “absolutely right” about something and answered my question with clarity in his German-accented English. As he moved onto the next question, I remained dazed for a few seconds. Michael Haneke and I had just talked about Robert Bresson, the filmmaker we both held in the highest regard, above all others. It was surreal. It was one of the highlights of my life. And the rest of the conversation wasn’t too shabby either. After discussing the importance of casting, especially in The White Ribbon, Haneke went on to explain that his films are completely storyboarded and planned, shot-by-shot, before he ever sets foot on set, saying, “My films are basically finished by the time we start shooting. I keep them in my head for a very long time.” As a result, he typically only requires one or two takes for each shot, allowing him to shoot his visually complex scenes extremely quickly. He went on to emphasize the importance of being prepared, both artistically and economically, noting that his compositions were always thought-out and meaningful (no coverage allowed) and his productions moved swiftly, allowing him to operate on limited budgets. He jovially refused to entertain any interpretations of The White Ribbon, restating that the viewer was free to create whatever meaning she wanted and, when later asked about his favorite filmmakers, he cited Bresson (nodding in my direction) as his favorite director and then claimed Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1974) to be his favorite film, a fact which astonished me as for years those were my exact answers. As he left amidst a well-deserved applause, I felt I had just encountered a very kindred spirit.
Margarethe von Trotta was Haneke’s follow-up act. While she was consistently candid and very sweet, our conversation with her was much less exciting, perhaps as a result of most of the students having only seen one of her films – the dismal Vision. Her interpretation of the film’s emotional arcs and her discussion of the historical background on Hildegard von Bingen were more fascinating than Vision itself (just as with the tribute to her) and the remainder of our seminar consisted of von Trotta’s thoughts on the importance of actors, her hope in the New Berlin cinema, her hatred of The Baader Meinhof Complex’s political shallowness, and the importance she placed on creating films with strong and intricate female characters. The most intriguing aspect of von Trotta’s talk was her discussion of feminism and her experience being labeled a feminist early in her career, a fact she resisted as she felt it politically and creatively pigeonholed her. In her eyes, the ideology of feminism placed upon her work clouded and restricted the complexities she intended. Her strong women could no longer be interpreted as real people with flaws and strengths, but rather as symbolic feminist avatars, a complaint that I found refreshing and insightful.
With our seminars over for the day, it was time to return to the theaters. Our group gathered in the Galaxy Theater – a converted elementary school gymnasium – in preparation for Jacques Audiard’s Cannes award-winning A Prophet. Before the screening, I spied Kent Jones (who would later introduce the film) and decided to introduce myself. Creepily taking him by surprise, I told him who I was and that I loved his work, especially his writings on Bresson. He seemed intrigued and asked me what my favorite Bresson film was. I told him Au hasard Balthazar, followed by Pickpocket (1959) and The Devil, Probably (1977). He said he couldn’t pick a favorite and then asked if I’d seen Les agnes du péché (1943); I replied that I had (thanks to James), but found it to be more of a curiosity than anything. He nodded and smirked. Finally, I confessed to him that I considered him a hero, which seemed to surprise him as he said “thank you.” I made my way back to my seat. Minutes later, the movie began.
A blend of Scorsese and last year’s Gomorrah, A Prophet presents the complex story of a young half-Arab’s rise to power within the French prison gang crime structure. Beginning with his transfer from a juvenile detention center to an adult prison, the film tracks Malik (Tahar Rahim) as he moves from low-level initiate in the Corsican mafia to head of his own drug syndicate, all from within the confines of a Parisian jail. Visually reminiscent of the aforementioned Gomorrah spiked with the flair of Goodfellas, the film features prominent use of grainy handheld cameras and editing rhythms that are meditative and slow-building, leading to moments of abrupt, unembellished violence (save for one gruesome scene) that are genuinely disconcerting. Mostly, the film consists of a drawn-out power play between Malik and the Corsican prison boss, César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), and both actors give incredible performances, particularly Rahim in the physically and emotionally demanding role of Malik. However, A Prophet suffers from a handful of unusual, pseudo-metaphysical elements, creating tonal clashes that are out of place in an otherwise conventional crime film. Namely, the problem areas are the presence of the “ghost” of Malik’s first murder victim, essentially a visual representation of Malik’s persistent guilt that comes across as somewhat heavy-handed and misplaced, and a dream sequence in which Malik has a vision of the future that eventually helps him escape a dicey situation via deus ex machina. With a different, less vérité cinematographic approach or perhaps a more consistent focus on these semi-supernatural elements, they might mesh, but dropped into A Prophet, they play like giant question marks.
Still, A Prophet was not nearly as disjointed as the newest film from Marco Bellocchio, Vincere, about the tribulations of the mistress and illegitimate child of Benito Mussolini, and the last film I saw that night. Photographed and acted rather blandly, the film’s stabs at ingenuity consist of moving text blocks, attempting to capture the feel of fascist propaganda, which are interesting, but not enough to compensate for the bizarre combination of eroticism and political melodrama that dominate much of the film’s unremarkable narrative. Mussolini (Filippo Timi), of course, is the charismatic villain and his disregarded pseudo-wife, Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), suffers being silenced by the fascist political machine in order to prevent Mussolini’s affair and resultant child from becoming public knowledge. Eventually thrown into mental hospitals and separated from her son as a result of her “delusions” of being the mother of Mussolini’s heir, Ida becomes a tragic casualty of Il Duce’s rise to power, a fact the film milks in its teary scenes of political brutality. Vincere lacks the resonance it seems to be after, however, feeling in the end more like a weepy romance novel version of fascist Italy than a substantial commentary.
Exhausted, I retreated to bed, awaiting the silent film extravaganza lined up for the next day.
To be continued . . .
The White Ribbon: A+
A Prophet: B