The Trial of “The White Ribbon”

February 18, 2010

Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” is a movie that insists upon a moral framework but refuses to provide one. It is generally a movie about framing, about how we see and what we look at. The camera is incredibly motionless, emphasizing the fact that just because something is imperceptible, that something is outside the immediate frame, it is still a part of the cinematic universe. There’s much that we can’t see in this movie. Sometimes we hear it and imply the actions, and other times we don’t have anything beyond a fragmented understanding of what’s just taken place.

Accidents, horrifying events, torture all take place in this small town, but we have no real way of explaining things. In fact, we often don’t know what has occurred. A man hangs. Suicide? Murder? No explanation. A fire. Arson? Accident? The movie refuses to tell us even what mystery we’re dealing with, let alone whether or not we should look and ask questions of culpability–this despite the fact that it’s structured like a classic detective story with one character trying to explain everything that’s been going on.  It all remains a mystery. And, if so, we need to be playful with our reading of mystery itself.

The idea of a “mystery”cult, or even the Christian mystery, is that once you’ve been exposed to the mystery, the mystic aspect, everything becomes clear. Haneke leaves us on the outside. Without knowing the mystery, the events remain not only obscure but insoluble.  We can only guess since we don’t even know the hermeneutic frame. The film’s narrator suggests the Holocaust, but that appears to be a gambit: it offers one inexplicable tragedy as a solution for another. The question, again, is one of framing: how do we even start looking at these problems if we don’t know what mystery governs, ties every(some)thing in place?

There’s a thematic connection here with Kafka’s “The Trial.” Equally (if not more) complex, Kafka’s narrative too plays with mystery. Is K guilty? Is the system? If K is innocent, then the mystery is who is telling lies about Josef K. If not, what did he do? It’s impossible to tell without more clues. The mystery shifts with every new detail we learn. But, unlike Haneke, Kafka rejects any sort of framing device. The line between dream/nightmare and reality is always blurry in “The Trial.” We can chose to leave the level of the rational when reading “The Trial,” something impossible in “The White Ribbon” where everything is firmly grounded in realism. It is this realism that makes the movie so troubling.

Visually striking, “The White Ribbon” is a beautiful film that asks disquieting questions of morality. Is religion essentially moral? Essentially immoral? These are possibly significant questions, though possibly not. The movie rejects questioning as much as it rejects answers.

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