Saturday, May 26, 2018

The White Ribbon (Das Weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte)

THE WHITE RIBBON (Das Weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte)     B+      
aka:  The White Ribbon – A German Children’s Story
France  Germany  Austria  Italy  (145 mi)  2009  d:  Michael Haneke

Among the themes in the German culture that have been identified as conducive to the emergence of the Nazi dictatorship are the following: a submissive, authoritarian culture; an anti-intellectual and antirational romanticism; what has been called Volkishness -- a combination of anti-intellectual romanticism and a distorted form of populism and xenophobia; an exaggerated form of nationalism with a corresponding rejection of internationalism; a glorification of war and martial values; a hostility to the West and modernism and their values; and a deeply rooted hostility to the Jews.

Several scholars conducted immediate postwar studies whose data indicate a strong strain of authoritarianism in the German familly and in other social relations, such as those between teacher and student, employer and employee, and even husband and wife. Related to this is the finding of the classic Civic Culture study that, compared to the citizens of the Anglo-American democracies, citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany felt less competent to participate effectively in political activity

—Lawrence Mayer, Comparative Politics: Nations and Theories in a Changing World, December 2000  
Winner of the Palme d’Or (1st prize) at Cannes, beating out the likes of Jacques Audiard’s 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #10 A Prophet (Un Prophète), which won the Grand Prix (2nd prize), the general feeling is that this is not like anything else Haneke has ever done, as it doesn’t have the punishing individual guilt associated with his other works and it brings children more prominently into the foreground, though it certainly examines the skeletons in the closet of the human race as if trying to peer into our Darwinian roots of evil, described by Haneke as “the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature.”  While Caché (Hidden) (2005) plays upon the collective guilt of a nation, using the present to comment upon racial injustices of the past, here he conjures up the past to reflect upon a country’s impending future, which is another way at taking a look at history before it happened.  The director does this by examining symptoms of communal guilt, denial, and random acts of violence, all leading to a societal breakdown, where a sense of dread pervades the overall stillness, feeling much more narratively accessible, though completely austere, more like a Bergman Scandinavian chamber drama on the absence of God, like THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) or WINTER LIGHT (1963).  Using a restrained and achingly slow pace, it has the comforting feel of a bedtime story with a malicious streak as a narrator describes a prequel to WWI in a typical rural town in northern Germany that thrives on its cohesive community structure which becomes a mirage, like a house of straw, where the foundation is discovered to be rotten to the core, where children are beaten or cruelly molested, women are humiliated by the pompous arrogance of loathsome men, and where an unseen cruelty creeps into the lives of virtually everyone.   

From the outset, the film is narrated by an unseen elderly man (Ernst Jacobi) many years into the future recalling events of an earlier time, where his own life is played by a school teacher (Christian Friedel) who comes from another village, but interestingly, he begins his story by saying it may not actually be true, but he is recalling the bizarre events in the village in order to “clarify things that happened in our country,” which is certainly a comment on both history and memory, each subject to individualized recollections that have a tendency to reflect how we want to remember things.  Because of the prevalence of a narrator throughout, this is reminiscent of Fassbinder narrating his own novelesque EFFI BRIEST (1974) or John Hurt’s biting sarcasm in von Trier’s brutally disturbing DOGVILLE (2003), each exposing characters trapped in the social convention of the 19th and 20th centuries respectively, where society’s alleged good intentions end up suffocating the inhabitants, as defined by Fassbinder’s alternate title:  “Effi Briest, or Many who have an idea of their possibilities and needs nevertheless accept the prevailing order in the way they act, and thereby strengthen and confirm it absolutely.”  In this way, while this story is a tale of ordinary German citizens, Haneke uses a claustrophobic atmosphere of brutal oppression to sow the seeds of what will eventually become a nation of Nazis.  He does this by examining not just the prevailing authority figures, but also the behind-the-scenes behavior of their own children, many of whom will one day be called upon to fight for the Third Reich.  The film shares with Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Il Conformista) (1970) the idea that sexual repression and social conformism are prime instigators of fascism, though it may have more in common with Bertolucci’s epic drama 1900 (1976), which similarly features a central patriarchal landowner whose peasants rebel against him. 
In an unusual turn, none of the adults have names, referred to only by their titles of pastor, schoolteacher, doctor, midwife, or Baron and his wife the Baroness, while the children all have names, though they are viewed collectively throughout, each with Aryan features, often seen in groups, where their motives are constantly questioned, but remain largely a mystery.  Living in feudal times where poor tenant farmers from guest-workers from Poland are brought in to help harvest the annual crops, most all of the land is owned by the Baron, who lives in an immaculate estate, where he is the biggest employer in the village.  At the turn of the century, the aristocracy included 3000 individuals who owned 15% of Germany’s arable land, yet employed more than 60% of the nation’s work force as farm hands, exactly as depicted here.  The Baron is viewed as an authoritative yet benevolent figure, throwing an annual harvest festival for the entire village once the crops have been harvested, an annual rite of food and drink and dancing, though there is plenty of underlying animosity from the class disparities.  There are a series of unexplained catastrophes that suddenly affect the residents of the village, where certain individuals are apparently targeted for acts of malicious violence, as if sending a message, yet these acts speak for themselves, as there are no follow up repercussions except more retaliatory acts.  At least on one occasion we see the actual perpetrator, as the pastor’s oldest daughter Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) is humiliated by her father in front of her classmates, so she sneaks into his office and gets revenge, impaling his parakeet with a pair of scissors, which are left in the form of a crucifix, suggesting she may be a hidden ringleader.  While everyone is a suspect, no one is arrested and the crimes are nearly forgotten, instead, life goes on with the village inhabitants barely even acknowledging the events.  In this way, with societies turning a blind eye, atrocities are allowed to continue.  What the film suggests is that when the majority refuses to act, a vocal minority may rise from the midst invoking terror, such as modern era Radical Islamists or neo-Nazi white nationalists. 

While all his others films have contemporary settings, this is the lone period piece, taking place in an idyllic pastoral world beautifully expressed by natural landscape grandeur, where there are two forces of evil in play, the perversity of the authoritative men, the supposed pillars of the community holding positions of responsibility, each representing a different aspect of power, where their harsh cruelty has an effect on their collective children, whose equally perverse and disturbing behavior goes unnoticed, like an invisible force that has been tainted by a strain of malice, yet they are always around when bad things happen.  Due to the slowly evolving chamber structure of the story, moving from family to family, where what the audience sees is a slowly evolving moral void, much of it through the harsh recriminations of the utterly intolerant local pastor (Burghart Klaussner), a repressive German Protestant fundamentalist who shames and ostracizes his subjects, offering little compassion or wisdom, beating his children for trifling offenses, forcing them to wear shameful white ribbons as armbands (like the Jewish star or the Nazi armbands) to remind disobedient children of innocence and purity, meant to invoke the fear of God, from a man who would be right at home in the bleakest Bergman dramas, where the subject might be a crisis in faith, but here it’s more a collective community absence of moral responsibility, given a completely austere look by the black and white imagery shot by Christian Berger, which was initially shot in color with much of the interior scenes bathed in candlelight or kerosene lamps.  Much of the film’s insights are hidden in small, intimate conversations, like the awkwardly shy moments between the schoolteacher and his virginal fiancé Eva (Leonie Benesch), 14-years his junior, or the schoolteacher scolding Martin (Leonard Proxauf), the pastor’s oldest son, for risking his life on the narrow rail of a bridge high above a stream, only to be told he was allowing God the opportunity to take his life, or when the pastor’s youngest son Rudi (Miljan Châtelain), still untainted by the toxic surroundings, naively asks his sister Anni (Roxane Duran) about death (his mother died in his own childbirth), told forthrightly, unhesitatingly, without an ounce of artifice.      

While the subject of fascism is never addressed, the utopian agrarian dream that formed the basis of mythological Nazi allure was from its outset a firmly planted lie.  Leave it to Haneke to unveil a continuing series of mysteries drenched in a suffocating atmosphere where no secrets are ever revealed, like a riding accident intentionally caused, a work accident which leads to acts of retribution, suicide, and humiliating acts of violence inflicted against children, including a beating of the Baron’s son, a barn burning, a younger child is deliberately placed next to an open window in the middle of winter and almost dies of pneumonia, and eventually a beastly attack on a child with Downs Syndrome that may leave him blind, with each strange event affecting the next, yet each remaining elusively out of rational comprehension.  The sheer meanness of the adults is as exasperating as the secretive, near cultish behavior of the children, who may be behind some or all of these events.  But instead of finding out what really happened, it remains the subject of rumors and gossip and eventually family lore.  The schoolteacher himself, who also doubles as the church choirmaster, and his devoted young fiancé Eva, both town outsiders, are an innocent couple unscathed by the macabre evil that surrounds them, and represent a vein of hope in a wicked world imploding in its own self-destruction, eventually leading to WWI and beyond.  It's a fascinating film, though perhaps not one of Haneke’s most provocative, as it tends to be simplistic in its personification of evil, finding the seeds of fascism (or terrorism) in religious hypocrisy and a crushing authoritarianism, where societies refuse to stand up to their own home grown cruelties.   Made during the Bush years in America which allowed the continued perpetuation of war and torture with so little public outcry, especially from elected officials, where Haneke never really connects the historical threads, leaving it instead vague and ambiguous.   

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Caché (Hidden)

CACHÉ (Hidden)           A             
Austria  (117 mi)  2005  d:  Michael Haneke

Winner of Best Director at Cannes, delving into the complexities of a modern era thriller, surveillance, and social privilege, perhaps not on the same level as, but in the same manner as Dreyer, Ozu, Bresson, or Tarkovsky, Haneke's formalistic execution is so flawless and precise that he disciplines the audience to reconfigure their conceptual vision of film, using a cinema by reduction, reducing what’s shown onscreen to only the barest minimum, employing subtlety to an extreme degree.  An appropriate title for this film, which is an elegantly filmed, internationally implicating whodunit that offers so few clues that by the end of the film, the viewer is required to return to all the scenes of the crime and come up with their best explanation.  That, ultimately, is the power of this film, that it so purposefully motivates the viewer to think for themselves in trying to figure this out.  Opening with a static shot overlooking a street into a facing apartment, we sit there awhile, as if in a state of pause, and reflect on what we see.  What immediately comes to mind is looking for Raymond Burr with a suitcase in a window, or leaning more towards the Clue factor, searching for the butler, with a kitchen knife, in the dining room.  This simply sets the stage for what follows, as it emphasizes how the viewer might approach the practice of watching carefully.  The residents of that apartment, Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil as Anne and Georges Laurent, both working professionals with a moody, yet intelligent teenage son, have received a video tape that simply watches their home over an extended period of time.  This sends them into a series of questions, such as who or why, and how?  Their life continues pretty much as it did before, until they receive even more specific video tapes from someone who has personal access to their lives, who is in fact spying on them, but again, they do not know who or why.  When they go to the police, since no direct threat has been made on their lives, the police refuse to intervene.  However their nerves begin to fray, which is expressed by Georges stepping out into the street and nearly getting his head taken off by a speeding cyclist, yelling out “You dickhead!” The cyclist, who is black, stops to confront Georges about the nature of his offensive comments.  What’s curious here is how the camera itself becomes an unseen collaborator simply by observing everyday events, where viewers are caught between what appears to be reality, until suddenly what we see is being rewound, revealed to be a surveillance tape, where it’s hard as we‘re watching the film to distinguish one from the other.   

With all the notoriety surrounding this film, Haneke becomes the most celebrated European filmmaker, reaching the apex moment of his entire his career, even though it was afterwards that he was twice awarded the Palme d’Or (1st prize) award for best film at Cannes, as much of his subsequent notoriety was obtained by the power and influence of this film.  Exploring the personal guilt associated with past actions, this film internalizes and externalizes the consequences, using history to comment upon the malaise of the present, suggesting the past cannot stay hidden.  Seeking refuge through withdrawal of moral responsibilities, people retreat to the isolation of their home, like a cocoon, hoping it provides a buttress to the violence and cruelty that exists outside.  The Laurent apartment is the picture of wealth and comfort, spacious, with an entire wall lined with books, in the center a giant TV screen.  He works as a television literary reviewer, where we see him working to edit out much of the dense, analytical discussion in favor of the more incendiary views sure to heighten the ratings.  Georges has a hunch who the culprit may be, but he refuses to share it with his wife, claiming it is irrelevant, which sends her into a rage, an internalized disgust with him, unable to believe he doesn’t include her and what could potentially bring her harm as relevant.  This also signals a guilt trip from the position of a white privileged bourgeoisie, something Georges refuses to delve into.  Through a series of dreams and personal conversations, we learn more about Georges’ childhood, that an Algerian family lived and worked at his parent’s country estate when he was age 6, and they had a child about his age.  At that time a historical event took place when Algeria, then a colony of France, was fighting France for its independence, an event known as Black Night on October 17, 1961 (Algerians massacred in Paris - Oct 17, 1961 -, when a peaceful demonstration taking place in an Algerian neighborhood in Paris protesting the Algerian War was brutally attacked by police, rounding up 200 unarmed protesters who drowned mysteriously in the Seine River, an incident that remains thoroughly concealed in France’s colonial past, a dirty little secret that is kept hidden, wiped clean from the nation’s collective consciousness.  Among the deaths are both parents of the Algerian family living with Georges, leaving behind an orphaned Algerian boy who finds himself all alone, which the family decides to adopt, but Georges was jealous of all the attention he received, and devised a plan to get rid of him.  It is this boy, now a grown man, Majid (Maurice Bénichou), that Georges suspects of getting his revenge.

Interspersed with this information, we see an international television news report about the current war in Iraq, as people of Arabic descent are rounded up and arrested, many of them tortured or killed, events that have become so commonplace that they are ignored, hardly stirring up any emotions any more, events that seem to mirror the historic events in Paris some 40 years earlier.  No one in the film ever questions the war.  And while its presence is felt, in particular the methodology of war, which certainly includes extensive surveillance techniques, Italy, France, England, and the United States, a coalition of the willing, seem to be a gang of majority white citizens rounding up and attacking largely minority Arabic citizens, with the invading nations showing little or no regard for any cultural understanding or respect, or any regard to the consequences of their actions when so many innocents are implicated, harmed, or even killed by these methods.  Instead this aggression is fueled by stockpiles of ammunitions and raw military power.  Georges, living as comfortably as he does, feels no guilt or responsibility for either his own complicity with the eventual eviction of a 6-year old Algerian kid from his home, or with the unfolding international events.  In fact, if Georges represents the behavior of the privileged, he’s not interested in learning the truth about any of these events, which he’d just as soon ignore and forget, as he’s too busy misplacing the blame on others, devising ways to threaten them, anything to avoid personal responsibility.  Hidden behind the psychological violence of the relationship between the wealthy white man and his mysterious Algerian nemesis is the deep-seeded harm and psychological torment to his own family, something Georges completely ignores, becoming obsessed instead with the idea of blaming Majid for everything, despite his vociferous denials.  Georges is Haneke’s representative of the French collective consciousness, the one that refuses to acknowledge the tragedy as well as his own involvement in the events at the Seine River in 1961.  In a mirror of modern times, Georges’ contempt for and fear of Majid, as well as his refusal to face his own abusive past, reflects the exploding national crisis that burst into incendiary riots in France’s poorest communities, the urban banlieue suburbs of France last November (2005), that involved the nightly burning of cars and three weeks of rage that stemmed in part from rampant unemployment, lack of opportunities, widespread ignorance, and a complete disregard of those suffering from economic and racial discrimination.  If history has taught us anything, it has always been the privileged bourgeois majority torturing the minority, never the other way around.  Similarly, this is how news coverage is received in the United States, as we hear from only one side, never from the Iraqi or Arabic point of view, which keeps the truth of the current occupation “hidden” from unsuspecting viewers who, like Georges, feel no guilt or responsibility.  What we are asked to do is question the validity of media information and our own understanding of how we view ourselves in relationship to others, how quickly do we implicate others, how easily are we ourselves manipulated, how long do we live in denial and fail to implicate our own actions?   This just scratches the surface of some of the unanswered questions of the film. 

One of the ugly truths about the film exposes negative interactions by Georges with anybody who’s non-white, always filled with threats and aggressive confrontation, where his inner rage is associated with his own pent-up white guilt.  As we learn Georges lied to his parents, blaming an innocent Algerian boy, it is significant no one listened to or believed the Algerian kid.  Only the white kid was believed.  Georges was only six at the time, but his lies forever changed Majid’s life.  This theme continues into adulthood, where Georges can be heard talking with his wife about his past, “What should I call it?  A tragedy?  Maybe it was a tragedy, I don’t know.  I don’t feel responsible for it.  Why should I?”  Georges refuses to listen to or believe anything Majid or his son in the film are telling him, instead he’s quick to blame and threaten both of them.  Majid, on the other hand, takes a differing view, which is cinematically shocking, in what may culturally be a noble and dignified act.  The pain and suffering of all those involved are unintended consequences, something the United States military calls “collateral damage.”  We never learn who initiated the surveillance, but the final shot of the film running over the credits reveals the sons of the two antagonists talking on the steps of their school, speaking comfortably and relaxed in a non-threatening manner, which at least opens up the possibility that they acted together.  Majid’s son, in a confrontation with Georges, declares he didn’t make or send the tapes, as did his father, but no one asked if he knew who did.  The most likely culprit, at initial viewing, acting with the knowledge and complicity of Majid’s son, who may be ashamed and disgraced by what he perceives as his own father’s submissive emasculation (which may have unexpectedly led to his own surprising actions), is Georges’ own son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), who may be equally pissed with his parents for a number of possible reasons, though only his displeasure with his mother is even hinted at in the film, nothing else is revealed about either son.  It’s all speculation suggesting the sins of the fathers are twistingly revisited onto the sons, but certainly Georges’ son has the means and opportunity, and similar to Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, based on the color of his skin, no one suspects him.  For that matter, what about Georges himself, in an attempt to expunge his guilt about his past?  On the other hand, this may be, if you will, a mindfuck of a film, as Haneke simply leaves this an open question without resolution.  Initially, not knowing who sent the tapes, this feels like an optimistic ending, as the parental animosity seemed to be replaced by a kind of accepting friendship of the sons.  Naahhh, this is a Haneke film, how can you trust optimism?  Perhaps living with unanswered questions is the way it has to be, as contemporary society so often misjudges or misunderstands the information it already has at its disposal, and governments have grown so used to lying, concealing, even fabricating information, all have contributed to the disastrous consequences that reflect the world situation today.