Children Behaving Badly

by Joshua Kline


The woman behind me would not stop huffing.

Well, I’m not certain she was a woman. She certainly huffed like a woman, but despite turning around several times, I couldn’t make out a face through the darkness.

One of the things I love about the Circle is that when the movie starts, those lights are fucking out. If you arrive late to a show that’s even half-full, chances are you’ll be tripping over someone. The screen may not be the largest, the surround sound may cut in and out (which happened twice on this particular visit), but the Circle Cinema knows how to do darkness. Deep, black nothingness.

Until the projector’s bulb illuminated the dusty flicker of the Sony Pictures Classics logo, the patrons at the opening night of The White Ribbon may as well have been blind. This is how the theater should be. Megaplexes have fallen out of touch with the cinematic potential of poorly lit auditoriums– watching a movie should always be a lights-out affair.

But I digress. The woman. She wouldn’t stop huffing.

If I could only make eye contact.

In defense of her disgruntlement, Haneke is one of our most divisive working filmmakers. The White Ribbon doesn’t incite the visceral repulsion of, say, Funny Games, but its implications are horrifying. The director addresses the roots of fascism by crafting a simple mystery: on the eve of World War I, a small German village is beset by puzzling, random acts of cruelty. The town’s children may or may not be involved. The local pastor, concerned with his own progeny’s moral integrity, dishes out beatings and imposes white ribbons on their upper arms. The ribbon, he tells his children, is a symbol of purity and innocence. Under Haneke’s guidance, the ribbon eerily echoes the future branding of German absolutism.

It makes sense that the movie won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It’s an allegory presented as a compelling mystery, beautifully rendered, hypnotically absorbing and demanding of thoughtful engagement.

The key to understanding The White Ribbon and Haneke in general is to absorb the material not just as a story, but as an intellectual exercise. The film’s artistic peer is Lars von Trier’s unfinished American trilogy (Dogville and Manderlay), two films that also present the spiritual disintegration of small towns as metaphors for a wayward country. Both von Trier’s and Haneke’s films present teachers as intellectuals who are good-hearted but philosophically impotent, both portray children acting out the latent evil of their fanatical parents, and both reveal the queasy counter-misogynist tendencies of their makers by focusing too much on the humiliation/degradation of the towns’ women (though Haneke’s degradation is more easily determined as necessary for his point than von Trier’s). Both are heavily stylized (Dogville and Manderlay’s minimal soundstage aesthetic and Ribbon’s murky-gray black and white photography) and sometimes emotionally obtuse. But von Trier, tackling Western capitalism and American slavery, presents his symbols and themes cleanly and clearly. Metaphorically, von Trier is all text, while Haneke deals exclusively with subtext. And while von Trier always aims for apocalyptic catharsis, Haneke holds back with a quiet and abrupt ending that, to the casual moviegoer, will be mistaken for a highly unsatisfying cop-out.

I forget that even adventurous Circle patrons aren’t always prepared for what they’re about to see. I’ve heard people complain about the large blindsides in the theater’s programming– provocative fare such as the fascinating new wave of Asian horror and the unwieldy crop of fashionable (and culturally relevant) European art-porn are usually skipped over. So I contacted the Circle’s co-founder and Board Chair Clark Wiens to verify their programming methods, citing von Trier’s controversial arthouse shocker Antichrist— which features, among other things, a penetration shot and a graphic cliterectomy– as an example of something that should have played at the Circle but did not. His response, edited for clarity and conciseness:

“In five years we know enough about our audience, and we’re not just trying to please them, because that’s not what we’re here for. If everyone gets to see eye candy, nobody learns anything. With Antichrist, I thought about the ramifications of the sexuality… It just didn’t seem worth going to war for, and it didn’t fit into our time schedule. But if I was sitting there with nothing else to show, in all honesty we would’ve probably brought it.”

In that light, The White Ribbon is a safe bet. Good god, it was nominated for an Oscar.

To be fair, the crowd was reticent throughout the movie. My huffing neighbor was the minority. Sadly, when the ending arrived, grumblings did echo through the theater. A good fourth of the audience were reduced to reluctant children who had just been tricked into eating their cinematic vegetables. They were not happy.

As the closing credits began their solemn scroll, the huffer scoffed: “Seriously?!”

Children don’t always know what’s good for them.

Reviewed: The White Ribbon
Dir. Michael Haneke