the white ribbon


I just watched The White Ribbon a film by Michael Haneke. His other film Cache (Hidden) is a favorite. Cache is about a middle class family who start receiving in the mail surveillance videos of the outside of their house; concurrently the father is contacted by a family servant from his privileged childhood who was somehow abused.

In Cache, Haneke shows us violent acts but resists connecting them: not to cause or effect, nor to justice, nor to retribution. We are left to draw our own conclusions: are the videos connected to the servant? Is  there culpability? etc. It is an idea about life, that we often don’t know, can’t know; that one thing happened may or may not mean that the other thing resulted.


The White Ribbon is set in a small northern German town in the year that Principe shot Archduke Ferdinand an act which we know precipitated the start of the first World War. At the time, the world, Germany included, was predominantly feudal.  Heneke’s town has a Baron at the social top who owns most of the land and employs most of the people. It has a Pastor, a Doctor, a Steward and a Teacher who narrates, who are the defacto leadership of the village. The rest of the village are poor laborers and farmers. You could say that at the bottom of the social pile are the children who play a big role in the film.

On the surface The White Ribbon is mystery movie. It shows us a series of events in which people are being deliberately hurt: to start the doctor is tripped by a wire and thrown from his horse, then a farmer’s wife dies at the mill, the Baron’s son is whipped and left in the forest, a girl is molested by her father, the midwife’s son who has downs has his eyes nearly put out, a bird is ritually killed. We never really doubt that the evil is ‘within’ but we, as we are conditioned to, wonder who is perpetrating. And Haneke, true to his form, doesn’t tell us not even in the end.

You could argue that, like in Cache, The White Ribbon shows us isolated acts of violence which remain obfuscated and unconnected. However there is a theme of connection that is unmistakable. It is a society that is harsh, punitive, judging, severe by design. The Pastor uses the strictest, austere reform Protestantism to guide village adolescents through confirmation. And we see this same group of children playing with knives, killing birds, pushing a child into a stream. We are left with a sense that the austerity is at least tenuously connected to the violent acts of the village children.

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a coincidence between two stories
September 13, 2010, 4:33 pm
Filed under: unseen world | Tags: , , , , , ,

Learning to Love:

Sometime in the first 20 minutes of Michael Haneke’s film La Pianiste, we learn that the perfectionist piano teacher Erika, played by Isabelle Huppert, sleeps in the same room as her mother.  Much further along, we find out that she is a regular at the live sex booth in a porn shop.  Shocking images, perhaps only at first:  the beautiful, accomplished piano teacher with a shameful home and inner life.  Haneke’s speciality:  truth masquerading as shock.  Or more accurately truth that we continue to pretend is an aberration and continue to allow to shock us.

Erika is like Norman Bates (from Psycho), only a little more socially acceptable.  Erika merely slept in her mother’s room; Bates embalmed his, and kept her in the upstairs room in a rocking chair.  The point is both moms controlled their children, and both children went far far into their adult lives allowing themselves to be controlled.  As a result of this control, Erika’s intimate life was reduced to watching other people have sex in booths and engaging boyfriends in sexual domination games.

There is an interesting side story in La Pianiste.  Erika has a student, a young girl, who has a neurotic and domineering mother, not unlike her own.  The teacher has a complex relationship with the girl and near the end we see her sneak into the concert hall’s cloak room, smash a drinking glass and put the shards in the young girl’s winter coat while she plays a recital in the hall.  After the recital, the girl badly injures her right hand on the glass shards.  It’s a malevolent act, and curiously it’s an act of salvation:  maybe this injury will set you back, she is saying, will alter your life course away from the one I took of perfectionism and isolation, will cause your mother to leave you be to live a normal life.

So, La Pianiste is about Erika’s attempt to form a real human bond with a lover.  It is a violent attempt, for she must confront and rebuke the control her mother and her own prolonged adolescence has over her.  Ah, the violence of family life.  Is it real or an aberration, a cheap trick used by a director to shock?

A Critical Coincidence:

The following quotation has nothing to do with the writing above.  It is Huppert’s description of what it means to be an actor.  She says to be beautiful, the story she has made about Erika and the story the director and writer have made must coincide.  Here is her description —

When you make a film, actually you make two films.  The director’s film is being made.  And the actor’s film or actress’s film is being made.  And the actress’s film is like a very intimate story that she tells to herself, which is within the director’s story.  And hopefully there is a coincidence between the two stories.  Ultimately, of course, it is the director’s film, but I think an actor always chases a very personal quest when he makes a film and very intimate and very secret and not invisible because I think it’s on screen, but it’s a whole personal fantasy, you know, that is not necessarily 100% according to the director’s fantasy itself, you know.   And I think that the mystery, the chemistry between an actress and a director is how these two personal fantasies make a coincidence, between the two of them, and it makes a film.

-Isabelle Huppert, interview, The Piano Teacher