BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 01 APR 10
Featured in
Issue 130

No Way Out

Does Michael Haneke’s lauded new film mark a shift away from his earlier critique of mainstream cinema?

BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 01 APR 10

The White Ribbon, 2009. Film still. Courtesy: Artificial Eye, London.

Every once in a while a film director switches fields and stages an opera: Atom Egoyan has interpreted Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungen, 1848–74), Werner Herzog has directed Wagner’s Lohengrin (1850), and Werner Schroeter has frequently staged the 19th-century Italian masterpieces he loves so well. With Michael Haneke, though, this switch has become somewhat ceremonial: following his 2006 performance in Paris of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) – which received a mixed critical reception – the Austrian filmmaker will be staging a production of Così fan tutte (1790) at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2012. The contracts for the production were signed long before Haneke shot his most recent film, The White Ribbon, which, since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009, has firmly established him as the world’s leading art-house director – in terms of both global sales and the countless awards for which he has been nominated, most notably this year’s Oscar.

Hitherto celebrated for the austerity of his film works, the Austrian director has completely shifted his position with the comparatively opulent historical tale of The White Ribbon – an account of a persistently feudal, protestant village in northern Germany in 1913–4. Until fairly recently, the notion of Haneke staging a performance of Mozart in New York might have been interpreted as an attempt to challenge established cultural mores, since his work focuses on the ambivalence towards the bourgeois consumption of highbrow culture (while entirely and scathingly dismissing the mass media). If there were a way to do an opera buffa according to the rigid criteria of Theodor Adorno’s aesthetics, maybe Haneke would be the man to achieve it.

The success of The White Ribbon raises the question of whether universal recognition has reached Haneke at a point when he has actually given up on his core project. The crusade against mainstream entertainment that he set out on by making movies which flew in the face of conventional cinematic values – for example, realistic representation, identification, traditional storytelling – has resulted in a film that is not directed against those values, but follows them. With its brilliant black and white images, The White Ribbon is decidedly pictorial, has characters to root for and tells a story.

On many levels, though, the film is still textbook Haneke. The pace is slow; many scenes bear a manifest or latent sadism; and, most importantly, there is no solution to the central mystery of the story, namely – who are the perpetrators of the acts of violence rocking this usually peaceful, rural population? The question is asked in typical Haneke style, since The White Ribbon draws on genre films – most notably the 1960 British horror film Village of the Damned, directed by Wolf Rilla, in which children are taken over by alien forces and begin to act destructively.

There are no alien forces in Haneke’s film. It is the destructiveness of humankind in general that we learn about in The White Ribbon: patriarchal violence, sexual abuse, class struggle and repression of desire and curiosity – you name it. With the voice of a narrator telling us ominously from the outset that the incidents in the film ‘shed a certain light on events yet to come’ (which means, by and large, the wars and crimes against humanity of the 20th century), Haneke structures The White Ribbon as a prophetic tale about modern history. Violence breeds violence: this has always been the key to Haneke’s films, from Der siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989) to Caché (Hidden, 2005). But, so far, this violence has always been mediated; it was the images and the iconography (and, to a certain degree, the technology) of violence that he tried to embed into a type of narrative cinema that took the pleasure out of watching movies and replaced it with the insights that are supposedly the result of distanciation. In Der siebente Kontinent, middle-class parents in Upper Austria, disillusioned with their monotonous, mundane lives, methodically plan and commit suicide – even poisoning their young daughter. The determinants of Haneke’s world have remained fairly constant ever since: his central mise-en-scène is the sealing off of an environment inhabited by people who more or less have everything, but who lack one essential element – an idea of what life could be about. (If there is anything remotely implying an Agambenian ‘bare life’ quality to Haneke’s films, it is found in the absence of any political agency in his characters).

Since Haneke’s protagonists are not fighting to survive (they are too well-off), he locates them in that predicament by introducing threats such as the two killers in 1997’s Funny Games (and the 2007 American remake, Funny Games U.S.), who seem to be driven by nothing other than the desire to perpetuate the levels of gratuitous violence found in many mainstream movies; or the seemingly eventless observational videos of the home of a Parisian family that terrify the people living there (Caché). In both instances, the families have to defend themselves against a mediated violence that Haneke makes as physical as is possible within the limitations of the medium. There was always a fundamentally paradoxical nature to his criticism of mass media by means of auteur filmmaking: these films were conceived as though there were an outside position to the media system, while the most powerful scenes in Haneke’s films are when he gets closest to the formulas of genre filmmaking and directs a thriller like Caché.

It is somewhat ironic that Haneke’s ultimate breakthrough came with a film that can only be interpreted as indicative of the exhaustion of his cinema-against-cinema approach. The White Ribbon is the work of a classicist; it has all the ingredients of successful films by predecessors such as Ingmar Bergman – stark photography, bland semantics, painful drama – and it disposes of all the conceptual energy of his best works (in my opinion, Der siebente Kontinent and Caché). The White Ribbon is a film that finally brings Haneke, who tried to take narrative cinema to its ‘point zero’ of a radically aporetic viewer’s situation (many people simply walked out of Funny Games), to the art-house mainstream. Is there any other way? Probably not within a field that absorbs even a maudit like Lars von Trier without problems. Opera, then, may prove to be a good second vocation for Haneke, who for so long tried to get as far away as possible from the world of the Oscars, and still almost won one.

Berlin-based critic Bert Rebhandl is among the contributors to the forthcoming volume On Michael Haneke, which will be published by Wayne State University Press later this year.

Bert Rebhandl is a journalist, writer and translator who lives in Berlin. He co-founded and co-edits Cargo magazine.