by Brandon Colvin
Michael Haneke’s cinema is one of elision and obfuscation. From The Seventh Continent (1989) to Caché (2005), the Austrian auteur’s oeuvre hinges, formally and narratively, upon withheld information: off-screen occurrences, inscrutable interiorities, fragmented framings, cryptic (in)conclusions. Haneke has frequently remarked that his style – owing much to work of Bresson and Tarkovsky – is intended to activate the viewer, to burden her with interpretive responsibility, thereby inciting creative participation. Crucial gaps are left unfilled. Cracks are allowed to widen, opening up the narrative. Cinematic space and time are made malleable in their uncertainty – a result of ambiguous implication and deliberate deception. Haneke’s newest film, The White Ribbon, a beautifully crafted, black-and-white, Palm d’Or-winning period piece, is a continuation of the director’s interest in oblique storytelling and is as visually/aurally precise, emotionally intriguing, and interpretively demanding as his best films, presenting the viewer with a moral and epistemological puzzle of devastating intensity.
Set in a provincial north-German village of Eichwald during the months preceding the onset of World War I, The White Ribbon details the mysterious and violent deterioration of a community terrorized by what might be best described as the wrath of oppression. Narrated as the dubiously remembered experiences of a young schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), the film is populated with despicably self-righteous, callous control mongers and their justifiably reactionary victims – not the least of which are their own psychologically and physically abused children, whose collective sense of justice has been disturbingly deranged. Whether suffering the totalitarian indulgences of the local pastor (Burghart Klaußner), the resident baron (Ulrich Tukur), or the town doctor (Rainer Bock), the villagers are subject to constant exploitation, a circumstance that grows even more horrifying once a series of brutal, seemingly connected, incidents befalls the community, culminating, suggestively, just as the news of Archduke Ferdinand’s infamous assassination reaches Eichwald. In trademark fashion, Haneke leaves the viewer with many more questions than answers regarding the various mutilations, deaths and defilements that arrive in bursts of agonized ferocity throughout The White Ribbon. Though clues abound, the culprit(s) are never specified. Motivations are never made explicit. Events are frequently left unresolved. The heart of the matter is tactfully skated around, preserving its dark complexity while providing an ominous outline for the viewer to fill in.
Of course, Haneke is not alone in creating his note-for-note, pitch-perfect symphony of cruelty. The ensemble cast never misses a beat, maintaining a consistently subtle performance style throughout – never showy, always measured – imparting an appropriate sense of communal as well as individual existence to the characters by limiting the ability of a handful to charismatically dominate the narrative. As a result, the story is effectively forged as the confluence of a multitude of fragmented perspectives (regardless of the fact that the entire film is ostensibly the memory of the schoolteacher). Most impressive are the many child actors in The White Ribbon, all of whom handle Haneke’s emotionally challenging material with startling maturity and heartbreaking depth; Haneke and his casting directors (Simone Bär, Carmen Loley, Markus Schleinzer) certainly deserve recognition for the remarkable acquisition of such capable adolescent performers, young actors who certainly make the film come alive.
The most lauded of Haneke’s collaborators on The White Ribbon – and definitely on par with the uniformly excellent cast – are production designer Christoph Kanter and cinematographer Christian Berger, both of whom contribute to the film’s impeccable visuals. Though Haneke creates shot-by-shot storyboards for all of his films, determining the vast majority of their appearance before ever using a bit of celluloid, the deft execution of his plans by Kanter and Berger (aided by certain digital effects) is masterful.
Intricate and impressive, Kanter’s work convincingly captures the film’s 1914 atmosphere without flashily emphasizing period detail, allowing the characters to exist in a lived-in environment, one that appears as if the filmmakers had somehow stumbled upon a hermetically isolated, unchanged locale, existing on a mythic plane of parable and preserved past. Berger’s efforts in actualizing Haneke’s compositions and photographing Kanter’s production design are perhaps the best in any film this year, replete with carefully obscured framings, fluid movements, and gorgeous lighting. Two of Berger’s shots have haunted me for months: the first, a stationary composition, depicts a peasant farmer viewing the corpse of his deceased wife, partially concealed by a foreground wall and held in an aura of light defused by a hanging curtain; the second, a complex steadicam shot that gracefully reveals the nature of the same peasant farmer’s shocking demise before gliding away to find his tragically unaware son nearby. Both shots are precisely lit and paced and both pack an indelible emotional wallop achieved through understatement and implication – two of Haneke’s most effective narrative tools.
Just as astonishing as The White Ribbon’s visuals, however, is its sound design, crafted by Haneke along with sound editor Vincent Guillon and Haneke’s frequent sound mixer Guillaume Sciama. As in many of his previous works, Haneke is prone to keeping many moments off-screen, seducing the viewer’s imagination and allowing representational ambiguity to flourish as a series of sonic intimations replaces visual certainty. With this narrative mode in place, Guillon and Sciama’s contributions become absolutely critical to the success of numerous scenes, providing an evocative soundtrack that intersects and complicates visual information rather than merely accompanying it. The film’s aural environment expands the narrative beyond the frame, initiating a dual perception of the seen and heard, each informing the other in striking ways. A painful scene depicting the pastor’s abuse of his young children exemplifies this technique. The camera lingers outside the room where the lashings occur, yet the sounds of the beatings make the remote spatial area as palpable as the pictured hall, doubling the simultaneous space of the scene and sparking an imaginative curiosity in the viewer, imploring her to mentally construct the unseen, yet heard, components of The White Ribbon’s cinematic world, those lying beyond the frame’s edge. Haneke’s stated aims of activating the viewer are fulfilled in such instances of audio-vision, encouraging cooperate creativity from the viewer in completing his narratives while demonstrating absolute technical virtuosity.
Indeed, from script to acting to image to sound, The White Ribbon is a masterpiece, one that recalls the sober works of classic art film directors from Bresson and Tarkovsky to Bergman and Dreyer. Refreshingly, Haneke has made a serious film with serious intentions. No winking. No self-reflexive evasion. No postmodern playfulness. The White Ribbon is as unflinching, sophisticated, gripping piece of cinema – revealing not only a trust in the active viewer, but also a confidence in the ability of a film to be successfully crafted in complete earnest. Some have criticized Haneke as being too “didactic” as a result of his undiluted solemnity but The White Ribbon’s sincerity and gravity strike me as indications of a filmmaker with sustained conviction and moral purpose – traits absent from far too many modern movies. Here’s hoping Haneke never loses his severity; if he does, we will lose something even more devastating: one of cinema’s greatest artists.