The AFI Fest defines itself as the festival of festivals and as director of programming, Robert Koehler pointed out before this screening, there would have been a glaring hole without this year’s Palme d’Or winner from Cannes, Michael Haneke’s Das weisse Band.
The film is set in a north German village in the final days before World War I, where a series of mysterious acts of violence unsettle the inhabitants: the doctor’s horse is felled by a tripwire, the Baron’s son is found suspended and roundly caned, and worse. From the austere and silent opening credits, this is a self-evidently serious film. It’s shot in textured black and brightest white with a deliberately mundane look that is for the most part successfully unseductive. One can only assume it as a specific aesthetic decision, because the control of pacing, framing (in particular), lighting, focus even, is so tightly deliberate. In terms of pure mise en scène the film rarely puts a foot in the wrong direction.
Not to say that the film is all doom and gloom. There is a genuinely sweet romance between the school teacher and the baroness’s nanny Eva, and the scene where her father unwittingly interrogates them into an engagement is very funny. But the best scene in the film is a quiet breakfast conversation between the doctor’s young son and his 14 year-old sister (Roxane Duran) as he questions her about death and she answers thoughtfully and honestly. The boy is good, but Duran is outstanding.
It is the school teacher who tells us the story who serves to put a curious spin on the air of menace and unease in the village. We are told of these things by the teacher, but for the most part rarely actually see them as individuals. More attention is paid to the effect on a farming family of an explicable accident and a confessed-to crop-destroying misdemeanour. It’s as though the characters we actually see on screen are being made to close their eyes to what’s going on around them. In the end, when the school teacher professes his belief that the children (led by creepy Rhoda Penmark-like Klara) are responsible, eyes are more explicitly, threateningly, closed.
This is to reinforce the voiceover claim in the opening moments that the story “could clarify something about what happened in our country”. The children will of course grow into the generation that fully embraced the National Socialism of the 1930s, and the petri dish of their childhood is depicted as sternly, unbending and hypocritically authoritarian. The baron is almost the cartoon feudal lord, contemptuous of his workforce, of grudging largess at harvest-time and a tyrant in his home; the doctor shows himself to be inhumanly cruel, the steward administers a particularly vicious beating to his son (also off-screen, but less pointedly so), and the pastor revels in the repeated discipline an humiliation of his children. As the baroness puts it, the village is a place of “malice, envy, apathy and brutality.” Most of it confined to the home and it’s a place where in discussion of culpability for the accident at the mill, a son can respond to his father’s “how do you know they’re guilty?” with “how do you know they’re innocent?”. And, wouldn’t you know it, the white ribbon of the title turns out to be an armband that the pastor’ son is forced to wear as a momento symbol of innocence and purity. Thud me with irony, Michael.
We never learn who commits the unsettling crimes. The school teacher’s suggestion (though not in the voiceover) that the children are responsible is entirely believable; the nature of the unsolved acts has more the air of childish prank than adult viciousness and we are sure of the perpetrator of only one violent, albeit private, crime, and it is a child. But that act is in direct response to unfair punishment, and the final crime scene contains a note concerning punishment for sins passed down through the generations, which while tying the children to their parents’ cruelty, feels hardly the work of a child. But if not the children then who? It might perhaps be a disgruntled farmer lashing out at the capitalist oppressors, but that seems unlikely given the final crime and the banality of the cabbage-cutting episode. The gossips’ explanation, as related by the voiceover, that the doctor and the midwife are responsible is similarly unconvincing, though their fate at the end is tantalisingly uncertain. Or perhaps some unwell unknown is marking his mark on the world – who can say where and in whom evil will take root?
And this ambiguity is a big problem. There’s no reason to provide an explicit answer of course, but the air of unease is neither unsettling enough nor properly earned to carry the inconclusive ending. An instructive comparison would be with The Turn of the Screw or even the strange goings-on of Wisconsin Death Trip, where the shadow of the maleficent supernatural hangs over matters and evade explanation. In this instance Haneke wants us to believe in the children’s culpability, in order to foretell future history, refusing to be explicit for the sake of a not-quite-successfully eerie atmosphere, or perhaps more simply, to keep his cards haughtily to himself and pretend he’s posing questions rather than answers. What we are left with is the finely nuanced and masterfully constructed portrait of a place of oppression and violence, where the children who will grow up to perpetuate that on a massive scale may or may not have started young, is designed solely to prod the audience towards horror.
There’s a reason why film-making 101 warns against ambiguity for its own sake, at best it’s self-defeating and at worst, contemptuous of the audience. But that is Haneke’s stock in trade, the king of having his cake and eating it. His film may provide plenty of food for thought, but it is far more self-servingly provocative and feels far less honest than the gentler and humbler Heimat. One can only dream of what the greatest chronicler of twentieth-century Germany, Fassbinder, might have made of his plans to lay into the same questions.
If you’re still not sure that Haneke is a self-satisfied arrogant sod, see his AFI interview here.