THE WHOLE HISTORY
OF MY LIFE: PART 6
by Christopher Funderburg,
March 31, 2011.
I got tired of writing about Interesting Films that will never mean anything to anybody, even if they're good, even if everyone agrees they're good and what kind of person wouldn't? So I wanted to do a short series about the films I really love - as in the emotion, the way you'd love a woman or a memory or a time that's passed and is never coming back. I wanted to write about the films that have demonstrably meant something to me in my life, that changed my relationship to the world and made me into a person, the only person that I am. I wanted to write about these movies and explain them without any horseshit, explain how film has the ability to get down into a person and do something to them. The six films I'm going to write about in this series changed the whole history of my life.
PART 1: THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE
PART 2: NAKED
PART 3: THE SMARTEST MAN IN THE WORLD
PART 4: METROPOLITAN
PART 5: THE WHITE RIBBON
PART 6: MIAMI BLUES
THE WHITE RIBBON
michael haneke, 2009
"I gave God a chance to kill me. He didn't do it, so he's pleased with me. He doesn't want me to die."
Writing about politics is a losing proposition. There's one side that agrees with you and one side that disagrees and if either contingent smells even the slightest scent of the other on your work, then forget it, your whole thought can be disregarded. It's even more futile to write about politics from the perspective which I currently occupy: I'm not sure. It's not that I don't care or don't have ideas or wouldn't prefer if specific outcomes were
possible, my problem is that I have little certainty about how to move towards my ideals for the world.
On almost every political subject, even if I know what I think would be the best outcome, I am tenuous about how to achieve it. I honestly don't know what should be done about Libya or how to repair Italy's democracy in the wake of Silvio Burlosconi's scandals or if anyone from the financial sector should be prosecuted in the wake of the recent economic collapse. I'm not sure if low-income housing is a conceptual
disaster that should never be repeated or a worthy idea in need of re-tooling. Re-tooling - what should that even entail? And North Korea? An insane dictator starving his people to death: sanctions, invasion, military pressure, international diplomacy, wait it out until the man dies? I'm not sure.
It's not that I haven't thought about these issues, it's not that I haven't attempted to develop a political philosophy, the problem is that the longer I think about the political dimension of reality, the less
certain I feel about my role in guiding the flow of history. Even the things that seem so obviously stupid and wrong - the war on drugs, the criminalization and cruel dehumanization of sex workers - I have few ideas about how in the larger scheme of things to move towards a positive resolution of those issues and what my role in resolving them could possibly be. And that's even before I can begin thinking about if there's any way to deal with the undeniable complications and contradictions embedded in those issues.
History as it is now practiced, has a way of vilifying most of all those who were uncertain: those who stood by and watched while atrocities were commited or allowed (through their complacency) vicious men to seize power. Throw in the fact that I am standing in a privileged position as a middle-class white man and I am all too aware that the majority of people
in this country don't believe I have the right to "I'm not sure." Stability is one of my many luxuries and the complacency of "I'm not sure" becomes a political philosophy in that context: I reap the benefits of the world as it stands, whether or not I understand how it came to be or what might be the best course for the future. As I said, it's a losing proposition.
And don't get me wrong: I'm not cynical. I haven't mentally checked out. I'm just not sure what I believe in regards
to a litany of geopolitical problems. And "I'm not sure" has a funny way of getting assualted as the most strident, ridiculous and dangerous of political philosophies - nowhere moreso than in a democracy built on the ideas of self-determination and the implicit freedoms therein: to opt out of the democratic process is to attack its freedom at their root. At least, that's the general feeling in the contemporary U.S. At very least, uncertainty can be shat upon as a convenient way to reap the benefits of the current political reality without taking any responsibility for its negative aspects. My Nestle candy bars are delicious even when I have no idea how to stop that corporation's exploitation of militarily-enforced slave labor in the Ivory Coast.
But I have often wondered why the opposite seems to be true in the case of art: artworks asserting an ironic (if not uncertain) point of view have a tendency to age much better than strident, politically certain works: is there anyone who wouldn't prefer if Eisenstein and D.W. Griffith's films weren't drained of their aggressive moral certainty? A defiantly political filmmaker like Pasolini is at his best when dealing in irony (like Gospel According to Matthew or Mamma Roma) not embarrassing 60's radical pseudo-Marxism like Theorema or Porcile. The same basic idea goes for Godard or Makavejev or even Chaplin (ugh... fucking A King in New York) - their best films are their least strident; their most apolitical work far superior to their most politicized.
Ironically, Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's pointed sense of irony draws the ire of critics and audiences for its supposed stridency, condescension and moral turpitude: films like Funny Games and Benny's Video are called out for tsk-tsk-ing their audience and, most inexplicably, looking down their nose at the medium. That a man who has devoted his life to making violent movies might not be creating artworks demanding the
end of violent cinema seems lost on a lot of folks. But, truly, if Haneke doesn't approach his subject from the position of "I don't know," then he's at very least determined to elucidate how the answers to the questions he raises appear to be in conflict with each other.
The story of a brutal home invasion, Funny Games, explores the strange fact that audiences go to some films to see violence that disturbs and upsets them: audiences are attracted to what repulses them. What Haneke is not doing is telling audiences they
should be ashamed of themselves for being attracted to violence (despite how critics insist that simplistic point of view is his endgame.) With Funny Games, I'm not sure his intent is anyting more complicated than drawing attention to (and pulling apart) that central irony, but he's certainly not out there issuing a moral directive. Or as Haneke has written, "I do not think that my opinions on these 'themes' are of much interest to anyone - nor should they be - I am not a 'forger of opinions.'"
He's not trying to tell you what to think. Sure, you can goad him into saying what he thinks in interviews, but his films are fortunately better than pat little moral directives. Funny Games doesn't exist to tell you how to feel about violence in film.
At this point in my life, my political thinking consists almost entirely of asking questions and very little forging of opinions. That's why Haneke's most recent film, the World War I era mystery The White Ribbon, has become the locus of my political thought-process: it asks the most useful questions about the most difficult to fathom moment in the history of Western civilization. While many critics forged opinions on Haneke's behalf in regards to the film, the film's value lies in the fact that it does not lay out a roadmap for defeating the rise of evil the "next time." By exploring all facets of the question "how did this happen?," it doesn't simply shrug into "I'm not sure:" despite dealing with a moment in history that has been subjected to endless scrutinty and speculation, Haneke's film properly considered should shake the certainty of the most "sure" of audiences.
If I don't think Haneke is interested in providing a blueprint on how to defeat evil in its pupal stage, what do I think he is saying with The White Ribbon and why should his open-ended analysis upset an audience? How is his non-answer more shattering than a clear dissection of moral failure would have been? That The White Ribbon answers the question of "why weren't the Nazis prevented from seizing power and committing the horrors of WWII and the holocaust?"
with "I'm not sure," it isn't an evasion - it's a deeply considered and troubling answer that should give pause to anyone who harbors utopian ideals... or even dreams of a modestly brigther future.
Let me back up.
The first I ever heard of Michael Haneke was back in high school: on the weekends, my mom would pay me to go down to the University of Delaware library and xerox copies of political science journals that she needed for her work as an editor. In my moments of downtime from this thrilling activity, I would hunt down the library's stash
of film journals to which I otherwise had no access (like Film Comment, Film Quarterly, etc.) and read them from cover to cover, taking careful note of all
the obscure movies I wanted to seek out. This is when I read about Haneke's 1997 film Funny Games, something of a break-through film for the Austrian auteur who had already been making feature films since 1989. Reading about the movie, it struck me as another
one of those artsy ultra-violent provocations that were enjoying critical popularity at that moment.
The arc went roughly like this: in 1994, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction blew open the doors for a level of violence and depravity in mainstream cinema, it spawned legions of imitators that imitated mainly the violence (and the ridiculous pop-culture-satured dialog) and also brought closer to the mainstream all of the underground films from which Tarantino was cribbing - Hong Kong heroic
bloodshed, Italian crime exploitation cheapies and sleazy low-budget horror movies all found a real place at the cultural table. As violent content began to dominate the world cinema stage, the world of Serious Film responded by upping the ante on violence and depravity - pushing the envelope of nihilism, gore and shock value moved from the Drive In to the Arthouse.*
If getting raped by the gimp or stuffed in a
woodchipper was acceptable content for Best Picture nominees, then what did "crazy" and "totally out there" Visionaries have to do to blow some fragile little minds? That films like Fargo and Pulp Fiction had a cartoon-y sense of fun to their violence only made more "difficult" fare intent on seeming indifferent or gleeful in the face of horrific violence. Reading about Funny Games back in 1997 made it seem like the nadir of this tendency, a winking
"you know you like it" to its audience: its captive viewers not victims of horrifying images forced upon them, but willing co-conspirators in a fantasy murder-spree: a more dour and brutal Natural Born Killers. The whole thought of Funny Games made me angry.
But I put it on my list of movies to find. I saw it, loved it and began my long-standing frustration with the critical assessment of Haneke. It's obvious that Haneke is more Robert Bresson than Quentin Tarantino, but for some reason that registers to critics as Haneke hating the genre/thriller aspects of film - as though Bresson didn't make prison break films, petty crime capers and murder dramas! Would anyone suggest that Lancelot du Lac's obsession with violence (a disembodied violence almost entirely free from "characters" in the traditional sense) means that Bresson was clucking his tongue at his audience for coming to see a violent movie? I'm sure plenty of critics have, but that's my point: they're wrong.
The tension of Funny Games derives from the fact that audiences sometimes go to the theater specifically to see what they "don't want to see." Haneke treats this as something of mystery, not an open-and-shut case. When the film's murderous
duo of kidnappers suddenly declare "the game" to be over and disappear from the film for a long stretch, Haneke uses an almost naturalistic approach to the heroine's recovery to demonstrate the truth that movies are really boring without antagonists - but does that mean he feels like his audience is sick, sick, sick for being bored? When the villians just as abruptly return, it gives the audience a distinct charge: but just because Haneke is drawing pointed attention to that jolt, does that
mean he's condemning it as well?
Of course not. He's posing a question and there's every indication that he finds the viewer/content relationship mysterious - if not unresolvable, then at least something that needs to be considered carefully, without easy answers. And those critics who recognize he isn't necessarily taking a stance on violence in le cinema are more likely to deride him for it than give him credit for being a, you know, genius. It's the same old story: don't take sides in
a polemical dispute and you'll get it from both opposite warring parties. But he's lucky to even get critics to understand what he's after:
"Having tricked us into feeling some hope, the movie mocks us for having been so easily manipulated, then punishes us for having been such fools."
- Stephen Holden, NY Times.
"[A] masterful home-invasion thriller that's designed to drive people
out of the theater. Failing that, it punishes them for staying."
- Scott Tobias, AV Club.
"The movie actively starts to attack its audience, as if to say, "What kind of asshole is still watching this thing?" Haneke himself seems to
think there's something wrong with people who don't walk out."
- Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper.**
Can't you see how a man who exclusively makes violent movies wants to punish you sickos for watching violent movies? That's the endgame. It's obvious! He's a genius! Or a fool. Depends on if you like violent films or not. I know a lot of critics would vehemently dispute my analysis of Funny Games, but considering Haneke's career on the whole, he very plainly isn't in the business of delivering polemics: with an extreme consistency, he actively denies answers to the questions raised by his films (narrative and otherwise.)
It's no coincidence that many of Haneke's films end with their central mysteries pointedly unresolved: who sent the packages of video tapes in Cache, why did the family tear apart their life in The Seventh Continent, who set the tripwire and assaulted the boy in The White Ribbon? Kafka's The Castle is perhaps the ultimate work for him to have adapted: it allows him to shut down the film abruptly just as the uncompleted novel ends mid-sentence - there is truly no answer to what awaits Josef K. behind the castle walls. Haneke's not playing a trick. He's not avoiding an issue. He's employing a tactic.
This pertains to The White Ribbon in that nearly every critic saw the film as Haneke's "solution" to the problem of the rise of Nazism in the Weimar-era Germany and either praised his intelligence in dissecting the roots of Fascism or took issue with his glibness on the subject. On top of that, many critics found Haneke to be issuing "a warning that could easily be directed at today's Middle East or, for that matter, at us." (Mike LaSalle, SF Chronicle.) Once again, they had him taking sides in a polemical battle.
But Haneke is after something else entirely; The White Ribbon is a film that painfully, even desperately, expresses the notion that after careful consideration it makes no sense that this could have happened, that the ways in which one could imagine defeating such a rise of evil seem to have been in place already: Haneke thoughtfully and deliberately responds to the questions of Nazi ascendncy with a measured "Truly, I'm not sure. I'm not sure how this could have happened and I'm not sure what's to prevent it from happening again."
It's not a dodge: it's a demolition of our prevailing ideas about the roots of evil and humanity's ability to direct the flow of history. I imagine that such an answer to such a question is simply unacceptable to many audiences. But the older I get, the more valuable such uncertainty feels to me - it's maybe only in that uncertain state that I can truly open my mind and begin to consider difficult questions. I'm past the point in my life where I have a plan for building a bridge before I even see the river.
The White Ribbon concerns a rash of violence in a provincial German town: a tripwire brings down a man on horseback, nearly killing him. A mentally handicapped boy is brutalized. A woman laborer falls to her death in a decaying barn. A cabbage patch is remorselessly trampled. It's pretty sickening stuff. The perpetrators of much of the violence are never revealed, although the film casts your suspicion upon the gaggle of blonde-haired moppets who are taking an onminous interest in the goings-on. Because of the creepy platinum-domed youngsters, the film has drawn comparisons to Village of the Damned, with the most unforgiving critics (i.e. stupidest) dismissing Haneke for having turned the rise of Nazism into a cheap horror film. The weakest (and probably most prevalent) criticism of the film derives from the fact that its mysteries are ultimately unresolved: Haneke is just implying that Nazism is creepy, unstoppable evil most similar to something out of a horror film - and isn't it just a little bit facile to say that the Nazis were inhuman demons à la Frederick J. Kreuger?
This criticism misses the point, but I think it's fair enough in a roundabout way: Haneke isn't actually trying to describe the roots of Nazism at all. The reason these fair-haired crumb-crushers grow up to be willing servants of a demonic empire actually isn't Haneke's concern and to say that they are as mysteriously evil as a the kids in Village of the Damned is probably accurate. Because Haneke isn't addressing how an entire generation came to embrace evil, but why WWI-era German society, in many ways the apex of Western Civilization, was unable to stop them. It's not a film about the origins of unimaginable evil, but the systemic failures that allowed it to grow unabated.
The answers to that question, the question of systemic failure, are much more mysterious than how widespread evil comes to be the law of the land. For sure, pock-marked across history are countless examples of genocide, rape, mass murder, intolerance, large-scale violence, merciless war-mongering and apocalyptic depravity. In that regard, what makes the Nazi ascenion unique is not its cultural aims or even the effectiveness of its execution of those horrible aims. The unique quality of WWI-era Germany was not its capacity for brutality, but the capacity for brutality to found in a society designed to be moral, humane and civilized.
The White Ribbon carefully delineates the presence and importance of education, art, science, community, hard-work and morality in a town that would shortly succumb to Nazism: the problem of the unnamed town is not a lack of civilizing influence - if there is any warning being issued by the film for us today, it's that a cultural dedication to these concepts will not determine a positive course of history. By all accounts, small towns all across Germany really did achieve Western Civilization's greatest aspirations: educated, literate children with a strong connection their families and neighbors, versed in the bible and its moral truths, trained in music and poetry.
And hypocrisy is not the culprit, these societal virtues are not a cheap mask concealing a community-wide rot below. Haneke portarys the main character (a school-teacher) and the local clergyman as sincere and thoughtful in their beliefs. By modern standards, the minister is very harsh to one of his sons, but there's no indication that he's anything less than a true believer dedicated to his religion's morality. The school-teacher seems like a straight-up nice dude and doesn't even really complain when his bike gets stolen. Sure, the local doctor is a grade-A asshat who ends his affair by telling his pregnant mistress that she sickens him, but his cruelty really isn't in conflict with his world of education, art, science, community, hard-work and morality. "Be nice" is James Dalton's commandment, not the Lord's.
While the failure of Christian principles is a prominent element of the film, Haneke is careful not to let Leftist fetishes like art and education off the hook either: the children play the recorder and the harpsicord, live with an amount of refined music and poetry in their lives that is inconceivable in a small town in the modern U.S., they go to school every day with the dedicated, straight-up good guy school-teacher and can read, write and think on a level that everyone would be satisfied with public school-children even now achieving. Despite being in a small town, their failings are not backwardness and ignorance.
And they are nothing if not connected to their community: a neighbor is expected to care for another's injured child. Everyone knows everyone else - they meet in church every Sunday and there is little apparent back-biting or hostility. It's as pure a community as is possible. The aforementioned jerk-ass doctor plays the role of science: even in a small town, they're not being treated by witch doctors with leeches. Again, this is not the story of uneducated yokels, pliable rubes helplessly whipped into a manic fervor by crafty manipulators because their mental defenses were so thin.
In many ways, this small community is all you can ask for. To demand more from society than what WWI-era Germany achieved is dubious, or at least entering into the realm of fantasy. And that's the terrifying fact: everything that could have been in place to halt the intellectual and moral deformation of these kids was in place. How could this have happened? This isn't dirty Mongols razing villages across Asia or conquistadors plundering and pillaging their way across America, this is educated, civilized Western society destroying itself. You can't point to this village and say they needed more education or more art or more scientific thinking or more moral guidance: the bulwarks against barbarism and depravity were squarely in place. And they failed.
In contemplating deeply stratified society in the throes of industrial revolution, Haneke deals carefully with the class issues of WWI-era Germany. There is, of course, a strain of thinking that sees Fascists outbursts like Nazism as the result of class tension: poor people's anger being misdirected at other groups of disenfranchised folks. Migrant laborers make a cameo in The White Ribbon and their swarthy otherness undoubtedly rankles the genteel Aryans of the village. But I think that Haneke includes this scene as nod to just how obvious the "how?" of the situation is: of course small-town Germans had their anger directed at non-pure types, that's the whole story. To Haneke, the interesting question is really more of a "why not?" as in "why didn't history flow another way?" as opposed to a "how did it happen" - that boisterious foreigners upset the German townfolk isn't a revelation. Ethnic groups not getting along is never a revelation. But is some diversity training really all that would have been required to make things right? Of course not.
Shouldn't the common folk have directed their rage at the hoity-toity fancy-folk in their palatial estate? Wouldn't that have solved all their problems: populist revolution? Indeed, Haneke presents a radicalized young laborer, the son of the woman killed in the tragic accident in a barn by the negligence of her aristocratic overlords. The young laborer gets so mad he smashes up the rich family's beloved cabbage patch. Clearly, he has revolution on the brain. Here we find Haneke pointing out that the missing ingredient for societal salvation isn't some kind of populist economic revolution: Marx, after all, was German.
The possibility of popular rage taking the shape of populist revolution was just as possible in this culture as Russia or Italy or anywhere else - that revolution didn't foment in Germany doesn't mean it couldn't have under any circumstance. In fact, Germany was class warfare's intellectual birthplace. And I suppose that we also don't need to rehash the fact that Weimar-era Germany was ostensibly a democracy as well. All of the things that were supposed to mold these children into model citizens and have them lead the world into a brigther future utterly failed. The white ribbons tied to their wrists failed to ensure their duty to goodness.
The film pulls no punches in its complex depiction of resentment, fear, moral deformity and kindness. The children are not uniformly evil, as though some toxin had seeped into the water supply and warped them. One of the most striking moments in the movie: the minister's son offering up Peepsie, the injured bird he nursed back to health, to his father as a replacement for a murdered parakeet. Just as the school-teacher seems like as good a guy as one could imagine, many of the people in the town display a real capacity for warmth and goodness. Even the outraged young laborer is driven by a dedication to something essentially positive: make sure nothing like what happened to his mother ever happens again. This is not a town mysteriously devoid of good people, not a world polluted entirely by blackness and despair. It is a town with some good people and some bad. Some well meaning but ineffectual, some genuinely good and decent, some misguided, some weirdos, some jerks, some straight-shooters, some moralists, some thinkers, some doctors, some ministers, some laborers, some musicians, some aristocracts.
I think of the boy (another son of the minister) bound to his bed by white ribbons. Clearly unhappy, the schoolteacher finds him in the woods walking dangerously along the rail of a bridge. When the teacher demands to know why he's doing something so deranged, he replies:
"I gave God a chance to kill me. He didn't do it, so he's pleased with me. He doesn't want me to die."
He's a boy you can easily imagine becoming a Nazi. But throughout the film, you can see he's also a boy who has thought deeply about morality, about his place in the world, about everything. He's damaged by his father's attempts to make him moral - the same attempts which made the other son generous and sweet. He's suffocated by his community - a place to which his family feels great connection and responsibility. He's a good student. A smart kid. A minister's son. Society has done all it can to make him a good person.
Is there a chance that it actually ruined him?
When I think about politics, I want to write about how uncertain I feel, how weak I feel against the force of history. What if all our attempts to create a better world have absolutely unpredictable outcomes? What if we can't control history? How does Marxism become Stalinism? How does provincial Germany become the Third Reich? Writing about any of this is a losing proposition. You can accuse me of complacency, of "doing nothing" while terrible things happen. You can tell me I'm in the privileged position of benefitting from the world's misery. But when it comes down to it and I look in the faces of those in my community, when I consider myself and my capacity for failure and wrong-headedness, when I say to myself "how can I make this world a better place, how can I prevent darkness and violence and depravity from drowning my world," I don't have a better answer than "I don't know."
Will there be a moment in history when violence and war and resentment and unhappiness and misery are defeated? Are we making incremental movements towards these ideals or are our luxuries inevitably built on the misery of others, on slaves in fucking candy-bar factories? Back to old-world Germany for a moment. The power of Haneke's film lies in its unwillingness to let you passively accept its discoveries. It's a film that stirs you, not deadens you. It drives you forward, past easy answers into dark territory where, if there are no answers, it is because it is unexplored. Haneke rightfully doesn't want to forge opinions: he wants awaken something in us. What is the only thing that gives us any hope of moving forward? After seeing The White Ribbon, I have an answer for at least that much.
* By the end of the decade, pushing boundaries between exploitation and art films had become such the norm that there was an entire crop of films like Romance, Baise Moi and Pola X to feature unsimulated sex (a.k.a. hardcore pornography) for little reason beyond pursuing the newly opened avenues of graphic content. That many of these films feature violence and hardcore sex but not dialog riffing on pop-culture is a development for which we should all be thankful.
** Maybe most absurdly, Adams asserts that in Funny Games "there's no self-referential humor" - which is just straight-up dumb: the film's most famous shot is the villian literally winking at the camera. It's not just a self-referential joke, but the ultimate self-referential joke (and a joke about self-referential jokes.) Even if the joke is sick, it still counts.
Incidentally, a lot of critics cite interviews Haneke has given about his films to support their point of view, but Haneke is generally weird, bombastic and self-contradictory when talking about his work: he himself said it best: "I made a film. If I could clearly express in words my ideas, I would have written a newspaper article." The one thing that Haneke has emphasized over and over again is his desire for open-ended, questioning work. Still, I'm always hesitant to use what he's said as a guide because so much of it makes almost no sense. And the films themselves are perfectly clear.