Something rotten in the state…

Formally, The White Ribbon seems most naturalistic (as opposed to realistic) of Haneke’s films to date, this quality, as with the film’s other departures , would seem to be a product of its being a period piece. Particularly intriguing in this respect is the role of sound: Haneke is unique amongst his contemporaries in having not simply fashioned a distinctive visual signature, but also a sonic one. Sound plays a critical role in what’s often described as his neo-Brechtian alienation technique. Often deployed contrapuntally, Haneke’s work deliberatly exploits the contrast or transition between different aural milieus,juxtaposing the simultaneously comforting and threating sounds of machinic modernity, the tinnitius of a mediatized environment, against the human suffering and angst, delighting in the manner in which, like the surface of water after agitation, a prexisting aural continnum (the diffuse sound of urban life) is restored after an act of singular violence. The White Ribbon offers few examples of this deployment of sound as a aesthetic organon, indeed it reveals the aural space of Haneke’s work to have been instrincally bound to the contemporary. Since the life of rural Germany a century ago does not afford this oppurtunity, the visual takes added significance,hence the metallic monochrome, the hyperreal detail of the film’s digital image: within which the textures of the material role serve a contrast and support; to put in Deleuzian terms, in The White Ribbon the op-sign assumes the role of the son-sign in Haneke’s earlier films.

As a film at whose centre lies a crime without culprit or motive, it recalls Hidden.In both films this trope serves to extend culpability beyond the evidentiary; no one is guilty because all are, but while in Cache (as Time Out notes) a present crime serves to expose the extant legacy of the past, the crimes of White Ribbon are premonitory,anticipatory. Thus, in the absence of a definite perpetrator, suspicision is directed to the milieu and its practicies, in particular the casual violence used to police familal relations: women and children are repetedly struck (physical confrontation between adult males is noticibly absent), or a subject to commands that broach no opposition.Curiously, the flim brought to mind the much maligned Wilhelm Reich, in that it offers a study in intergenerational ‘sexpol’. The centrality of sex and its canalization is signalled by the film’s opening: the first of the unattributble crimes–the brining down of the Doctor,is an act witnessed by his teenage daughter and domestic assitatn/lover-the village midwife The only characters that will be seen engaging in sex. A congress conducted in both instances in a rather literal embodiement of body armour, that is fully clothed (apart from the obvious). This amoured quality determines almost every interaction in the film, we always observe confrontations between formal identities, parent to child, employer to employee, superior to inferior, indeed perhaps the only exchange that seems an direct confrontation between two individuals speaking freely is the harrowing exchange between Doctor and Midwife.

If as targets of malicious and vengeful acts these characters correspond to the libidinal or sexual pole of a desiring economy,  the others appear to arise from the iniquity of productive relations (the political pole). Here the Baron and his family are the focus, thus there son is abused, their property attacked. Guilt focuses on the children of the pastor, who bear the epononymus ribbon. The latter is curiously chiastic sign, in that mobeius strip like it folds morality and crime into one another. Ostensibly a memento of purity and innocence, it marks its bearer as everything but, it is a goad, or brand, an outward sign of insufficent grace, but in the film’s wider desiring economy, the purity, innocence etc that it signifies emerges a corrupt, malign. The paradoxical moral topology of the ribbon is hypostatized is the pastor’s sullen, taciturn, and socially adept children, who emerge as the most likely instigators of the misdeeds. But certain crimes, notably the blinding of the midwife’s disabled son, or the incineration of the Baron’s barn,seem respecively too extreme or unlikely, and point to other more mature perpetrators. The film’s climax comes when the narrator voices his suspicions to the Pastor, whose response is moral outrage ‘You obviously have no children, otherwise you not suggest such abberations’ –a opinion that exemplfies the ambiguity that runs through the film. Especially since Haneke., has stated that the mutilation of the pastor’s prized bird by his daughter has already confirmed the presence of sufficent violent malice, so that he knows that it is ‘true’ (does this mean that the children are solely responsible for the crimes?)

Intringuly, in the same interview Haneke suggests that the teacher’s narration is being delieverd some 60 years later (in the 1970’s), and so that the ‘events that later happened in this country’ that he believes his story might explain extends to the RDF ). While the first world war is ominous presence throughout the film, and the focus on children, the majority of whom exemplify a chilly, blond aryanism, clearly augur  the rise of fascism few, I suspect, would have spontaneously projected the film’s sphere of commentary that far into the last century (one curious coinicidence in this context is the note that is affixed to the blinded boy, a biblical quotation declaring that the sins of the father will be revisted upon the son even unto the third generation-– Fassbinder’s study of German terrorism).

However the scope of its influence is determined, the world that the film depicts is continually haunted by future,. Some scenes seem ripe for, or already infused by recollection, for instance a young boy’s disturbing primal scene,of his father’s sexual abuse of his sister, whose dialogue is repleate with Freudian displacement; father, she tells the wide eyed child, has just pierced her ears, hence her tears and pain, the holes having closed up, this will allow her to wear her mother’s earrings: the symbolism of rupturing of protective membranes, and the assumption of the mother’s accourtments, seems to issue from the analyst’s couch.

Neverthless, its suggested that the parrallels are too explicit, that the apparent ambiguity and indeterminate merely dissembles; the underlying logic is clear: the brutality and repression of domestic regimes will ripen to political disaster .Certainly, on one level it is the most literal of Haneke’s works (though I wonder whether the declaration of one of the city police men sent to interrogate a child who appears to have some foreknowledge of events ‘We have ways of making you talk’ was intentional , or inadvertent irony thrown up in translation). But the charge of a programatic explication of a prior thesis (brutal and intransigent micropolitics incubating macropolitical catastrophe) elides a cruical dimension of Haneke’s vision, and reflects a crudityof analysis rather then thematics. White Ribbon is poorly read if seen as the assertion of a facile equation between patriarchal repression and violence and future fascism; as if Germany were simply the site of an overzealous coding of desire, whose excesses spawned claimity. On one level, the brutality of gender and class relations, hypocrisy of organised faith, and distortion of sexuality delineated while odious is surely far from unique- allowing for dramatic effect its elements could be discerened in a range of socieites–not solely those that would succumb to fascism. Correlation does not imply causation, this libindinal economy anatomosied should be seen as necessary, but in no way sufficent (as Haneke has saide ‘it’s not specifically an explanation of German Fascism because that would be an impossible thing to do’).

More important still is the crucial fact that this is not a study of repression but rather of its failure. The confrontation, the brutality is nearly always associated with refusal to submit, woman and children are growing beyond the command of the ancien regime. On every level, at every strata, (in the relation between classes and between individuals, in a continually sense of the erosion of bonds and obligations) the structure cannot hold; if fascism is prefigured then it resides in this collapse, in the decoding not coding of flows. The entire order articulated in the film is in its twilight; the war is a death from inside that emerges arrives from outside (and vice versa).

White Ribbon is not an equation, but an immersion in a complex field of social, and libidinal forces, whose unbinding reveals the logic of their prior ordering, and whose fragments and legacy will hybridize with myriad vectors of modernity, that shall haunt the present for many years to come.

the simultaneously comforting and threating sounds of machinic modernity,


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