The White Ribbon

I went to see Haneke’s The White Ribbon last night. It’s fair to say I felt rather ambivalent about it. According to Haneke:

"In places where people are suffering, they become very receptive to ideology because they’re looking for something to clutch hold of, a straw that will take them out of that misery." Does ideological belief remove the need to ask questions? "Of course. The less intelligent I am, the more easily I follow someone who is going to give me the answers."

It is partly for this reason, one assumes, that Haneke’s work never offers one simple answer where several complicated enigmas will do. As a director, he believes firmly that a film should pose more problems than it solves; his ideal viewer is "one who leaves with questions". Does he find it irritating when people who have seen his films ask him what happened next? "It’s not at all irritating because it’s a normal question. I say: take a look at the film, let it go through your head, consider what you want to think about it. People always want answers, but only liars have the answers. Politicians have answers." Later, he confesses that the only thing he watches on television is the weather forecast, because "that’s the only thing that is not a lie".

It’s certainly true that The White Ribbon is far from being monologic as a film. The pastor’s authoritarian approach with his children results in one stabbing his pet bird, while another offers his father a tamed bird upon seeing how upset his father is. The pastor’s puritannical morality contrasts with the Doctor’s adultery and lust for his daughter. Both contrast to the somewhat sentimental story of the Teacher’s love for Eva. However, the fact remains that the film does have a central premise to it concerning the origins of violence. The film is not depicting events defy meaning, in the manner of Kafka. It is depicting a didactic view of German society, seen as authoritarian, brutal and repressive, whether in denying sexual pleasure, in beating and abusing children or in treating workers with callous disregard. The children depicted represent the generation that went onto become Nazis. The point is not especially subtle and contrary to Haneke’s view that the subject matter is universal it seems difficult to see the same script being filmed in contemporary Germany. The themes would simply not translate for the most part. In another interview, Haneke notes that:

"Automatically when you make a film you’re manipulating the spectator. If you place your camera here instead of there, you’re going to give a very different impression, so filmmaking always involves manipulation. The question is rather, to what end do you manipulate the spectator? I’ve often said that manipulation is a form of rape. The only acceptable form of rape is when you rape the spectator into autonomy, make the spectator aware of their role as a receptor, as a victim, so that they become autonomous or independent."

I am unsure a film can easily be both manipulative and open-ended.

I’ve also just finished reading Mishima’s Runaway Horses, a novel that does tend rather more towards the dialogic; "he has excluded a number of contradictions…he sacrifices all perspective.. what the book lacks is contrast". Based around the central thesis that its central character, Isao is the reincarnation of the protagonist of Spring Snow, I assumed that Mishima is alluding to Nietzsche’s idea of the external recurrence. As with Nietzsche, the idea is far from being without problems. Just as the idea of the superman and the eternal recurrence seem to alternate and compete in Thus Sprach Zarathustra (since the eternal recurrence is a nihilistic concept wherein existence is simply a chaotic flux that is far from being susceptible to the individual will) so they do here. Where Kiyoaki in Spring Snow was destroyed by his Schopenhauerian willlessness, his inability to master and shape his desires, Isao is a model of the superman with all its fascistic implications made overt. Nonetheless, both return to the same fate ("the irony of the human will’s relationship to history.. every strong willed person was in the last analysis frustrated"), in spite of Honda’s attempts to save them in both novels.

Over the years I’ve found myself increasingly unenthused by Orwell’s writings and The Road to Wigan Pier has not proved to offer any startling exception to this. Orwell begins with a description of a working class guest house that caricatures its owners as dirty and disgusting stereotypes; "it gives you the feeling that they are not real people at all… they exist in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world." Later in the same text, after complaining of black thumbprints left by the guest house owners on food, Orwell has the temerity to speak of the middle-class delusion that the working classes are dirty; "dirtiness is healthy and natural and cleanliness is a mere fad or at best a luxury." Orwell then claims to have overcome his own middle-class revulsion without any apparent trace of irony. In part, much of this appears attributable to the fact the guest house owners simply aren’t the right sort of working class people a good communist was apparently supposed to feel solidarity with, unlike the hagiographic (Stakhanovite ?) description of the miners that follows, in contrast to other figures like ‘Nancy poets.’ Northern working class heterosexuality is elevated above Southern middle class homosexuality. Middle class life is ‘sickly’, ‘debilitating’, ‘soft’ and ‘repulsive.’ But again, Orwell goes on to suggest that such ideas are pure mythology; "that the North is inhabited by real people, the South merely by rentiers and their parasites." In fairness, Orwell’s views on this subject are admitted to be ambivalent; "soembody who grasps that what is usually called progress entails degeneracy and who nevertheless is in favour of progress." I’m not sure that this does much to mitigate the view though. The final closing peroration is perhaps the part I mostly intensely disliked; with the war with the fascist states imminent what is uppermost in Orwell’s mind is to "attract the man who means business and you have got to drive away the mealy mouthed liberal who wants foreign fascism destroyed in order that he may go on drawing his dividends peacefully." In one line, you can see clearly how communism did so much in ensuring the hegemony of fascism in much of Europe, but the idea that fascism was in many respects a reaction against communism or that liberalism would survive either of them, was not one that you’d find entertained here.

The recent novels of JM Coetzee operate on a relatively simple premise, taking a scenario that deals with the life of a character deliberately framed to resemble the author, only for the autobiographical aspects to be deconstructed as fiction. In the case of Foe, the principal works in reverse, with Defoe’s narration of Robinson Crusoe, itself a text that sought to depict itself as being a literal account, being deconstructed as a work of artifice that did not correspond to Coetzee’s account of events; one work of fiction being unmasked by another. For example, Foe tells Susan that while she wants the narration to only dwell on the island "it is thus that we make up a book: loss, then quest, then recovery; beginning, then middle, then end," thus showing how artifice is imposed on a mundane reality. The voiceless Friday epitomises how narrative and meaning can be imposed; "Friday has no command of words and therefore no defence against being rehsaped day by day in conformance with the desires of others. I say he is a cannibal and he becomes a cannibal." By contrast, Susan says that "I am a free woman who asserts her freedom by telling her story according to her desire." Of course, as Susan has to rely on her male ‘muse’ to tell her story, the novel has the paradox that Friday’s silence is better resistant to having his story imposed than her tale; "but noe all my life grows to be story and there is nothing of my own left." Coetzee’s device of deconstructing Defoe’s text allows him to pose the question of what happens to the text if the author has been removed in true Barthesian style; "have we thereby lost our freedoms?…do we of necessity become puppets… do not suppose that because I am not substantial these tears you behold are not the tears of a true grief."