Apparently, for his latest film (and his first period piece) Michael Haneke eliminated all unmoveable evidence of modernity from the set in postproduction. One imagines telegraph cables, electrical wires, the glow of distant towns, lampposts, aerials etc. – all expunged from the diegesis of the film after the fact. Perhaps the decision was merely economic; perhaps physically removing each and every of those indications of the modern world would have been too time consuming, too costly. Nevertheless, it seems a significant bit of information to have been divulged, however inadvertently, considering the usual and rather boring surfeit of facts surrounding the technology of a film's production. The idea that there exists an unaltered version of 'The White Ribbon' that still has all those 20th and 21st century contingencies arcing from house to house, or receiving digital signals on rooftops, is tantalising, and, for me at least, serves to vicariously enact something of the murky recollections of the film's elderly narrator. Memory as retrograde futurity, as shifting revisionism.
Set in a feudal village in rural Germany in 1913, on the eve of a future that is not yet such a monumental past, the narrator's younger self is introduced as the local schoolteacher – a gentle and affectionate man amongst a cast of cold, abusive, pious and often depressed characters. Welcomely, he acts as the siphon for our sympathies, providing a crucial but contingent person to identify with. In Haneke's previous films, protagonists are often empathetic stand-ins for his acknowledged or assumed audience – a liberal intelligentsia who's latent disregard for the consequences of their acquiescence to progress often results in the terrible manifestation of their culpability, their denial. And, although 'The White Ribbon' is unique among his works as a period piece, the complicated role of the narrator might point to a similar position.
Remembering the film seems to be a critical factor in understanding its standpoint, if indeed it has one. Certainly, one of the pivotal aspects of the film's relationship to what went on to happen in reality after its fictional narrative ends in 1914 is remembrance. The character that we feel closest to within the film is also the only one that exists – at least partially – outside of its immediate history. The schoolteacher is looking back and remembering these events, from a position not only in the future of the diegetic world of the film, but also, it is implied at least, from a place within our own authentic past. He will live through – he has lived through – potentially both World Wars (his voice is old, but we don't know how old). He shares our sombre hindsight; he sees, but does not understand, everything that happened in the village in 1913 as cast in the pitch shadow of the future. Everything that happens, then, in his recollection, is ambiguously meaningful, just as it is for us as viewers. Connections, whether real or not, are made in smoke between that gloomy, monochrome past, and what happened subsequently in Germany and across Europe.
The mystery that provides something of a generic attachment for the film and its 'plot' (and a connection with the genre exercises of Haneke's earlier films) is, surely, a red herring – and I think it's common interpretation as directly connected to the First World War, no matter how debatably – is a misdirection; a misdirection that, again, points to a genuinely contemporary, continuous discourse concerning the contentiousness of history and its necessary critical revision. The film and everything that happens within it – bar the narration – are wholly equivocal, partially obscured and most certainly subjective. The narrator, our empathetic rock, is conjuring this bleached story from the recesses of his aged memory – embellishing, forgetting, interpreting, imbuing and portending as memory dictates. The mystery of who has been perpetrating the horrible crimes that punctuate the film is a narrative that the schoolteacher has designed in hindsight, in an effort, perhaps, to understand what went afterwards. His need to rationalise the terrible events that followed, secreted beneath an anecdote (but whose motive is revealed in that introduction, in which he counsels that the events in this village "could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country"), is perhaps a manifestation of his own guilt; he is old, he survived.
Towards the end of the film, our protagonist schoolteacher comes close to accusing the children of the village of perpetrating the terrible crimes of the past year. It's an awful, nearly impossible suspicion, but one that we too have been harboring throughout the film. Again, there is something salient about ours and the schoolteacher's suspicion of the children: this, we remember, is his recollection, mingled so potently with our own sense of history; we understand as well as he that these children are the generation that went on to elect a National Socialist government. Like the schoolteacher, we are seeking the ghosts of the future in these children's innocent faces. The fact that there is no reply – either to the film's specific mysteries, or to the larger mystery of the story's known future – is the righteous perpetuation of guilt, the continuation of a vital discourse around our own history and our culpability in the face of its remembrance.
Also in this month's artvehicle, see Richard Whitby's linked review Omer Fast's 'Nostalgia' with reference to Michael Haneke