Tuesday, 16 April 2013

My Own Public Germany: Notes on Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon (2009)

The White Ribbon Screening, University of Brighton, 15 April 2013

The subtitle of the German release of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) is ‘a German Children’s Story’, and the film is set in a German village between 1913 and 1914. Clear enough. In an interview with Time Out Michael Haneke insisted:

This kind of displacement – from a specific cultural context to a more general context, or argument – is a signature of Haneke’s filmmaking. It is also, I’d suggest, a problematic gesture. In the case of The White Ribbon it is hard to escape the fact that this probing of childhood or teenage ‘fanaticism’ or ‘terrorism’ is highly-specific to the generation that will bring forth Nazism. This, I think, is one of the central equivocations of the film.

            If we take a contextual reading we can locate The White Ribbon in the wider genre that probes the psychopathology of Nazism. In his controversial two-volume work on the pathological fantasies of the Freikorps – the post-World War One veterans groups – Klaus Theweleit also probed the structures of childhood that, for him, conditioned the emergence of Nazism. This speaks to the context of The White Ribbon. Theweleit notes that: ‘The fascist state needed, and this reinforced, the family in its capacity as ordering force and ego boundary; but the family remained more or less an obstacle to the fascist will to world domination.’ (1989: 252) The result was what he called the ‘fascist double-bind’ (1989: 252) – the family as essential to the new order and also, as in The White Ribbon, a structure to be contested or exceeded. What we might call the inchoate campaign of the children (if, in fact, the children are responsible, which is only heavily implied) in the film will later be canalized, we could assume, by the Nazi state, as ‘the child was encouraged to take action against its parents as an informer in the service of the Führer.’ (1989: 252)

            Thewelheit’s analysis is remarkably suggestive of the psychopathology probed by the film: ‘Their aim is to annihilate what they perceive as absolute falsity and evil, in order to regenerate their ego in a better world.’ (Theweleit 1989: 253) These are fanatics of the ‘good’, so to speak, fanatics of the immanent and unfulfilled morality by which they are abused and constrained. They ‘punish the sins of the father(s)’: the doctor, the Baron, the steward, and the pastor. Although we should add that in the case of the pastor this authority is not merely authoritatian, but a creepy combination of reasoned discourse and violence. It is this discourse the children turn against the fathers.

            Eric Santner considers the psychopathology of Nazism through the lens of the case of Daniel Paul Schreber, the German jurist who fell into a paranoid psychosis after being elected to a senior judicial role in 1884. For Santner this disorder is a result of a crisis of investiture and Schreber’s psychosis provides an x-ray of the disorders of Germany itself – Santner’s book is entitled My Own Private Germany. Drawing on Lacanian psychoanalysis, Santner suggests that what is revealed is the perverse enjoyment (jouissance) at the heart of symbolic authority: ‘Schreber discovers that symbolic authority in a state of emergency is transgressive, that it exhibits an obscene overproximity to the subject: that it, as Schreber puts it, demands enjoyment.’ (1997: 32) Schreber’s ‘pathology’ reveals the raw matter of ideology before it is processed or gentrified into official ideology. This raw state of ideology is the galvanizing effect of enjoyment that ‘powers’ the ideological field.

            We could link this to Haneke’s film, as it probes a certain ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’ in generational transmission which generates what Santner calls a ‘sense of surreal corruption’ (1997: 43). What Haneke implies is that the transgression of the children lies in their extreme obedience, which, to continue with Santner, implies ‘getting too close to this [drive] dimension of social reality.’ (Santner 1997: 43) Taking seriously Old Testament morality resutls from and produces a crisis in authority. This getting ‘too close’ produces the scenes of ‘surreal corruption’ – sexual abuse, violence, disturbance – that emerge in the film. This is realism turned studied and phantasmagoric.

            Taking another contextual approach, one not licensed by Haneke, we can also connect The White Ribbon, strangely perhaps, to the genre of the horror film. More specifically we can connect this work, and other Haneke films (especially Benny’s Video and Funny Games) to the horror genre of ‘the terrible child’, or teenager. The literary terrible child emerges in works like Tom Tyron’s The Other (1971) and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967), both rapidly made into films.

            Robin Wood argued that these films of ‘the terrible child’ are ambivalent: on the one hand, they are reactionary, affirming the patriarchal family as bulwark against the ‘horror’ of the younger generation. On the other hand, as in The Omen (1978), they stage the extinction of this family (Wood 1986: 88). Wood remarks, channelling Walter Benjamin, that ‘The Omen would make no sense in a society that was not prepared to enjoy and surreptitiously condone the working out of its own destruction.’ (1986: 88) It’s striking that Robin Wood planned to write a book on Michael Haneke, but died in 1989, the same year as the release of The White Ribbon. While Wood respected Haneke’s achievement the bathos of my comparison of The White Ribbon with The Omen is intended to suggest the problematic status of the ‘horror’ of the ‘terrible child’.

            We could recall Omen II’s use of the military school as ambiguous structure of authority – even trying the patience of the child of Satan. In The White Ribbon we can ponder this fear of the child, especially if we follow Haneke’s generalising argument that it might apply to all children, or all 'fanatical children'. This use of the idea of fanaticism (to follow Alberto Toscano (2009)), risks the usual reactionary tropes of the fear of abstraction and equality, as the children refuse to respect the ‘moral texture’ of the community. On the other hand, their attacks might seem well deserved, bringing down this immoral ‘moral community’ by revealing and disrupting its ‘obscene underside’. The fathers burn with enjoyment, such as the doctors sexual abuse, but also the Baron's anger, pastor's hypocrisy, and steward negligence. The baronness notes this is a community of envy, apathy, and brutality. This is the equivocation that links to the equivocation of the terrible child film, which suggests it is not so original and equally problematic.

            The generalization of the structure of the fanatical child seems, to me, to end up in metaphysical problems. In a laudatory discussion of the film John Orr remarks that ‘[Haneke’s] pessimism about the human condition goes beyond its very specific Adornian incarnation – the aphoristic savaging of commodity capitalism.’ (2011: 263) In this way we fully detach from any context, and this is also evident in Orr’s claim, which I don’t find convincing, that ‘Haneke has systematically uncoupled all the links in the causal chain’ (Orr 2011: 261). The detachment of Haneke allows him to generate a metaphysical thesis of evil, which both plays to the horrors of Nazism and occludes them. At the same time it collapses together all ‘fanatical’ instances into a metaphysical refusal and evil that runs very close to the ideological uses of the idea of fanaticism against any politics of abstraction or equality. In doing so, of course, it becomes abstract in turn.

            This, I think, is one of the puzzles of the film. In many ways detailed and textured it is also abstract and schematic, deliberately and at the same time. Haneke’s use of schematic ‘Brechtian’ character names and his use of back-and-white are, he points out, deliberate ‘distancing’ and abstracting strategies. So, we have a decontextualization that is supported aesthetically and by a practice of metaphysical claim or abstraction.
What concerns me is not equivocation per se, but the tendecy and structure of how these equivocations fall in the film. The film is, at once, not abstract enough (in its particular but insufficient evocation of context) and too abstract (as it spirals into 'higher' levels of abstraction, all the way up to evil itself). It is not adequate as a thesis about Nazism, nor about generalised fanaticism. What it is perhaps best at is the resonance of its probing of abusive forms of power and control, the petty forms of authority, and Haneke's usual refusal to align 'correct' responses to events. But the floating forms here threaten to become attached to prenicious ideaological tropes and to push us not into autonomy, but into well worn anxieties concerning fanaticism and power. After all isn’t this just another horror film? But not even that, as this is a dishonest horror film.