[Spoilers for The White Ribbon and Caché]
Last night I finally watched The White Ribbon (2009), Michael Haneke’s moody black-and-white mystery set in a German village on the eve of World War I. It’s similar in some ways to his earlier film Caché (2005), another mystery set in modern-day Paris, though the plots are pretty different. In The White Ribbon, a series of violent crimes is committed by an unknown perpetrator. In Caché, a wealthy family begins to receive anonymous, threatening surveillance tapes of their own home.
I like these movies, but I don’t like the way people write about them. In both cases, there’s no formal solution to the mystery, and there’s a long line of critics — including Haneke himself — eager to lecture you for even wanting one. The mystery isn’t the point, they say: it’s just a device to keep you paying attention while the real themes are delivered. But God forbid you try to divine what those themes actually are, because nothing you come up with can possibly be large or profound enough to satisfy these aesthetes. The White Ribbon, for example, gives every appearance of being a parable about the rise of fascism in Europe. But no, Haneke and his fans insist that it’s about so much more — human nature, society, religion, childhood… apparently no art film can be successful anymore unless it encompasses the entirety of human experience.
One happy exception to Haneke’s critical harem is Roger Ebert, who has dissected Caché in enormous detail as a straightforward mystery. But I think even Ebert is working too hard. These are both good movies, but they’re also a lot more self-contained and straightforward than they’re made out to be. After some reflection, it’s not that hard in either case to solve the mystery and understand the message. (Here again is your spoiler alert — do not read further unless you’ve seen both movies already or don’t mind hearing the endings.)
First, Caché: as a reminder, the father in this family, Georges, once had an Algerian adopted brother, Majid, and as a child he told a lie that convinced his parents to send Majid off to an orphanage. Majid seems to have had a rough life since then, and he has a son who comes to confront Georges at one point about his past.
So, who made and sent the videotapes? It was Georges’ son Pierrot and Majid’s son, working together. This is the only explanation that makes sense: they had the knowledge, means, motive (Pierrot doesn’t like his father either) and opportunity. It’s confirmed when the two boys meet outside the school underneath the closing credits.
What’s the message? That the modern French bourgeoisie is still implicated in historical colonialism (the Georges-Majid parable) and living a superficial lifestyle that leaves them alienated from their own loved ones (Georges’ relationships with his wife and son). The second theme is hardly worth mentioning as it’s de rigeur for an artsy movie these days. As soon as you see those film festival palm leaves on the poster, you can be pretty sure that some form of social alienation is in the cards, just as surely as Jean Claude Van Damme’s presence tells you that someone in the movie will get kicked in the face.
The White Ribbon is even easier, because the narrator pretty much spells it out for us. The crimes were committed by the village children, working together, and they did it because they were mimicking the harsh and arbitrary punishments inflicted on them by their pious, hypocritical parents. All these kids will grow up to be SS officers. The message is that religious moralism is implicated in fascism. Oh yeah, and everyone is socially alienated.
At this point some readers are shaking their heads solemnly and clucking about the deeper “layers” and other potential explanations that I missed. But I’ve read about these “layers” and I don’t think they’re really there in the films. For example, was Georges somehow sending the tapes to himself, as some kind of self-loathing Freudian split-personality something or other? That question sounds pretty deep as long as you don’t actually answer it. The answer is no, that’s ridiculous. It doesn’t accord at all with what we see on screen, and it’s not even really how “split personalities” work (if they even exist).
Similarly, could the narrator in The White Ribbon have been unreliable, insincere or just mistaken in his theory about the children? Well, he opens by saying he’s not sure if the whole thing is true, but that question is never revisited, and it feels like a standard throwaway line from an old man beginning a story. The rest of the movie gives us no real reason to ask these questions about the truth of what we’re seeing. People ask them mainly because it’s a Haneke movie. If his next project is a shot-for-shot remake of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they’ll be seeing the same poignant, “challenging,” unresolvable questions in that too.
Some of the other things that I’ve read about are really there, but they’re elements of the style, not the point of the movie. Like the “theme” of surveillance in Caché — it’s a useful device, but the movie isn’t about surveillance and paranoia in the same way as, say, The Conversation.
As many have pointed out, what really stands out about Haneke is his hostility to his core audience. From the couple in Caché to the one in Funny Games to the daughter in Amour, the targets of Michael Haneke movies are exactly the kinds of people who would be most likely to go see Michael Haneke movies. (The White Ribbon is an exception, perhaps because Michael Haneke movies didn’t exist in 1913.) A lot of movie critics fall neatly into this demographic, which may be why the critical response to his films is so much more complex than the films themselves.