After viewing Michael Haneke’s masterpiece The White Ribbon, I came to the conclusion that Haneke is my favorite director of the past decade. From 2001’s The Piano Teacher on he’s consistently proven himself not only as a filmmaker merely to watch, but as a director to argue about akin to Lars von Trier and Roman Polanski (before the cinematic debate turned personal). Like von Trier, Haneke trains his cold lens on people desperate to make order out of mayhem. And in a way, Haneke is an anthropological Polanski, forever concerned with the evil we can’t see, with that which lies beyond the frame. He wants us to hear the words left out of the script, to feel the heaviness of absence—to ponder that which is missing.
Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner is set in northern Germany just before WWI changes the lives of the tale’s very Protestant villagers forever. The stock characters include a nerdy narrator schoolteacher, a rich baron, a strict pastor, a sadistic doctor, a suffering midwife, poor tenant farmers and—most importantly—the offspring of these varied human sources who all suffer equally and painfully. Beginning with the doctor’s bad fall from a horse that trips over a wire strung nefariously between two trees, a string of mysterious “accidents” occur that are each more disturbing and bizarre than the last. All the while these possible crimes go halfheartedly investigated since no one ever seems to have seen or heard anything (and no good religious person would dare speak evil anyway). In other words, witnesses are never present because they don’t want to be. These townsfolk are terrified to look in the mirror and maybe see a monster staring back.
In turn, all of the characters from the cruelest to the meekest are caught in a vise of fear because nothing untoward is acknowledged, not even class strife. All feeling is stifled, and this repression breeds repression. An atmosphere of terror, which leads to a panicky desire to control, is passed down from one generation to the next. This brings the audience to see the Fascistic future not as an aberrant outcome, but as the only logical conclusion. Haneke, like von Trier, is interested in delving into the chaos that reigns when the Dionysian spirit itself is forced underground. In The White Ribbon any talk of the irrational—as from the girl who claims to have dreams that come true—will be met with punishment. A cop who questions the crying child after one especially heinous crime practically spits, “I don’t believe in witches and sorcerers.”
Ingeniously, The White Ribbon is not a whodunit but a “Where did the original sin begin?” In Haneke’s world there are no neat and tidy lone gunmen, only a community made up of likeminded individuals constantly reinforcing one another’s behaviors—even when those behaviors are abhorrent. Those growing up in a community of collective abusers can’t help but become abusers themselves. Dysfunction is a “disease” of society, not just of one person or of a single family. Even the absolutely adorable pastor’s son who promises to release a wounded bird he’s rescued (his mere smile elicited a righteous round of “Awwww” at the screening I attended) ends up putting it in a cage—a gift to his domineering dad. He’s so enamored with his controlling father he simply forgets the right thing to do. Indeed, if a child is raised to follow a strict authority figure without question, that child inevitably will grow up to believe that not thinking for oneself is not only normal but necessary.
In addition, Haneke continues to mine his ongoing pet theme that consistent punishment creates an insatiable craving for punishment. (It’s why the sadomasochistic relationship between the doctor and the midwife—who serve as scapegoats at the end for the sole reason that their leaving town makes blaming them convenient—lasts for years.) When the pastor claims that caning his children will hurt him more than it does them he’s also training those kids to embrace punishment as a catharsis that will cleanse both victim and victimizer. Haneke heightens the tension of the caning scene by lingering on a closed door (we hear the sounds of torture but don’t see it) in the same sadistic way the pastor draws out his punishment by telling the kids they will be caned for disobedience—tomorrow evening. In so doing, we come to identify with these characters, with the fright caused by an awareness of inexplicable dread that we are unable to see in tangible form. By manipulating imagery—shots are framed nearly imperceptibly off kilter—Haneke has trapped us in his web. He’s crafted an existential thriller in which we the audience are forever losing our balance.
While much has been made of Haneke using The White Ribbon as a literal statement of “This is how Nazism happened” the director is far too smart for that. What Haneke never does—and which tends to drive a lot of critics nuts—is offer concrete answers. The director has no interest in serving as an audience’s strong father figure leading us to simplistic explanations. That is how Nazism happened. What he does do is rather meticulously examine pre-existing conditions, present possibilities like a theoretician. Ultimately it’s up to us to do the hard work of thinking for ourselves. Haneke’s never going to give us the benefit of that other catharsis that occurs when you can name the unknown, define the fear, and thus destroy it. That behavior can get addictive—the compulsion that stirs the heart of every serial killer.
Film criticism requires one to be objective about a subjective experience. Corneliu Porumboiu, the director of the Rashomon-like 12:08 East of Bucharest (which took the Cannes Camera d’Or in 2006), mines the often absurd, nuance-averse territories of life in his Un Certain Regard-winning Police, Adjective by focusing on the literal “letter of the law.” Wearing its Pickpocket influence on its sleeve, Porumboiu’s film follows undercover cop Cristi (an understated Dragos Bucur) as, day after monotonous day, he trails fairly harmless, hashish-smoking teens, one of whom stands to do serious jail time for offering the illicit substance to his friends. In a moral quandary probably familiar to many an arresting officer expected to enforce our own controversial Rockefeller Drug Laws, Cristi must choose between his job and his conscience. What should one do when old laws haven’t caught up with new attitudes? Do you partake in that which you believe is wrong?
While Porumboiu’s filmmaking can be overly analytical and self-conscious at times, a bit too calculated in its nods to Neorealism, the director smartly universalizes his rural Romanian tale through deft camerawork, including a long opening sequence that is all images and no dialogue. The patient long shots perfectly place Cristi in the context of this post-Soviet any town in transition, where the only sounds are ambient, cellphone ring tones recognized the globe over. Slowly, the bureaucratic red tape piles up and the excruciating minutes tick by until judgment day arrives in the form of Cristi’s boss played by the diabolically thrilling Vlad Ivanov (who with a name like that was bound to be cast as the evil abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). In a hilarious scene that culminates in a reading and discussion of the dictionary, a very un-liberal revelation occurs. As ludicrous as the law may seem, Cristi’s equally ridiculous, by-the-book superior turns out to be making the most sense. Cops are trained to carry out the law, not debate it. The police force, like the military, is no place for conscientious objectors. In the end, the unsentimental Porumboiu knows that Dirty Harry is for Hollywood. And that, in this highly subjective world, Police, Adjective will not be everyone’s cup of tea.