The White Ribbon utilizes many authenticating effects to establish the truthfulness of its reconstruction, the veracity of its depiction of the past. The careful mise-en-scène, with its period costumes, detailed depiction of agricultural methods, and retro architecture (the shingle roofs artfully retouched), led me to Haneke’s archive. I examined his production notes, script, story board, and posters at the Austrian Film Museum in order to think about what such a period film might accomplish. While it attempts to ground its truth claims in an extra-filmic reality that historical photographs vouchsafe, it mistrusts these efforts to substantiate truth-in-representation by recourse to something we might call verifiable history, a history that can be authenticated.
In looking at this tension between what we know and how we know it, I focus on Haneke’s engagement with inscription. Haneke is an exacting director interested in every aspect of production, and his desire to work in Europe rather than the US is tied to this kind of control. As a result, his films evince a distinct “handwriting,” and close analysis is fruitful for teasing out internal rhymes as well as stylistic and thematic connections within his oeuvre. In this book, I first discuss the filmmaker’s ongoing relationship to Austrian literature. With The White Ribbon, Haneke inscribes himself in a modernist canon that deals idiosyncratically with World War I to offer an encompassing view of a culture in decline. His “literariness”— the invocation of literary conventions—in the film also draws on a longstanding poetic tradition, where a voluble narrator comments on events within the embedded story. While the frame in literature can have multiple functions, it here establishes authority, grounds the story in lived experience, and demonstrates the first-person narrator’s intellectual investment and emotional distance.3 It also introduces epistemological questions and smooths over narrative inconsistencies—to which I draw attention. Throughout the course of the film, Haneke’s “literary” techniques remind viewers of the blank page necessary for inscription to occur. As the screen turns blindingly white in transitional scenes, the whiteness evokes an achromatic empty sheet of paper. Haneke, the filmmaker-turned-scribe, reverses the color’s associations with innocence and incorruptibility, leaving a dark message in dazzling images. Posterity is asked to bear witness to events it cannot fully fathom or even discern.
Haneke is also writing himself into a historiographic, philosophical, and photographic tradition, not only a textual canon. The White Ribbon retraces 1960s and 1970s debates about the rise of fascism. In probing the ways in which pedagogy engraves its tenets on the minds and bodies of boys and especially girls within Protestantism, the film draws on Katharina Rutschky’s groundbreaking compendium on “black pedagogy” from 1977.4 Rutschky and others saw this detrimental child-rearing pedagogy as part and parcel of the Enlightenment and a precursor to authoritarianism. Furthermore, as a result of the student revolution of 1968, the gender politics of fascism were discussed in psychoanalytically inflected cultural studies (which I associate here with Klaus Theweleit); Haneke picks up on this discourse about women’s roles. Finally, engaging with the aesthetic history of photographic portraiture, Haneke visualizes the tensions his film creates between a universalizing typology and the particularistic thrust of photography. From the beginning of his career, the filmmaker has problematized the ubiquity of images and their naturalization in contemporary experience.5 Haneke returns to his 1976 adaptation of Ingeborg Bachmann’s story “Three Paths to the Lake” (1972) to interrogate cinema’s relation to photography as well as photography’s ability to raise awareness about victimization and injustice.6
The television film proffers what Susan Sontag terms an “ecology of images” via photography—and distinguishes Haneke’s praxis from that of other directors. In its use of montage and portrait photography, The White Ribbon also summons up German photographer August Sander (1876–1964) and his vast atlas People of the Twentieth Century, published only in abridged form as Face of Our Time in 1929. Haneke alludes to Sander to reflect on what the building blocks of film might be, those ur-texts of visual practice determining how we visualize the past.7 Referring to the individual cinematic image in the analog era, Haneke once said film tells falsehoods—at a rate of 24 frames per second.8 This is even more true in the digital epoch, which exacerbates the tendency toward deception. Post-production with its special effects means that images do not rely on any grounding in the real world to come into existence. With the indexical relationship to the object world in front of the camera lens severed, film no longer functions as a historical archive. In other words, Haneke does not espouse the fantasy of the digital: the digital neither escapes “time, entropy, degradation,” nor can “information [. . .] simply be transferred, without loss, from one ‘medium’ to another.”9 In the era of the digital archive, where the historical record can be manipulated or fabricated, The White Ribbon queries the status of the individual picture—if such a thing can even be discerned from within the stream of digital data.
4. Katharina Rutschky, ed. Schwarze Pädagogik: Quellen zur Naturgeschichte der bürgerlichen Erziehung (Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein Sachbuch, 1988).
5. The manipulative conventions of mainstream filmmaking are thematized in Code inconnu (2000) and the editing of digital TV “footage” in Caché (2005). Viewers are forced to reflect on the ethical implications of photojournalism, as well as on the way in which media have become invisible to their users. Haneke’s 2017 film Happy End focuses on the Snapchat habits of the young protagonist (Fantine Harduin); we see the world through her smartphone lens.
6. Ingeborg Bachmann, Three Paths to the Lake: Stories, trans. Mary Fran Gilbert (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1989); “Drei Wege zum See,” in Simultan (Munich: Piper, 1972), 130–205.
7. Sander’s son published a larger selection of photographs in 1986, and the entirety was brought out in the new millennium. August Sander, People of the Twentieth Century: A Cultural Work of Photographs Divided into Seven Groups, ed. Susanne Lange, 7 vols. (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 2002); Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts: Ein Kulturwerk in Lichtbildern eingeteilt in sieben Gruppen, ed. Susanne Lange, 7 vols. (Munich: Schirmer/ Mosel, 2002).
8. See the documentary entitled 24 Wirklichkeiten in der Sekunde (dir. Eva Testor and Nina Kusturica, 2005).
This post is an excerpt (pp 4-6) from The White Ribbon by FATIMA NAQVI, Professor in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures and an Affiliate of the Film and Media Studies Program at Yale University.