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The complicit gaze: Michael Haneke's cinema of guilt.

Uneasy Beginnings

The title of Michael Haneke's 2009 film Das weisse Band in many ways draws attention to what the work is about. The metaphorically charged "white ribbon," which Haneke borrows from an early nineteenth-century text by Johann Heinrich Gottlieb Heusinger, is, in the words of the austere pastor who ties it in his children's hair or around their arms, intended to remind them in its white color of "Unschuld und Reinheit" (see Heusinger 251). The implicit logic at play here is that the white ribbon will admonish the children--who are late for dinner and try to cover up their fault with lies--for having forfeited a putatively original purity through their delinquency. It is significant to grasp the peculiar logic of this white ribbon in its ambiguous connotation, (1) as it signifies, on its surface, innocence and purity and, in the words of the pastor, is meant to help avoid "Sunde, Selbstsucht, Neid, Unkeuschheit, Luge, Faulheit." This didactic impetus, however, simultaneously and inevitably relies on the assertion or assumption of the bearer's degradedness in that it legitimizes itself as a result of his or her alleged im-purity, dis-ingenuousness, his or her regress--the very state that occasions the wearing of the white ribbon in the first place.

To be sure, Haneke's film does not merely take up the didactic impetus of the white ribbon thematically but indeed translates it into the aesthetic registers of the cinematic medium. The questions of black and white and guilt and innocence enter the film--typographically--from the very beginning, or even from before the beginning. As part of the opening credits the film's title appears, in white block capitals, against a black backdrop. Soon after, the subtitle emerges, again against the black backdrop, yet gradually rather than abruptly this time, and in small-font kurrent script--whose curved, swirling lines exhibit a ribbon-like quality--rather than in white block capitals: "Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte." (2) If the pastor's world and the one epitomized by the white ribbon unmistakably seek to discern innocence and truthfulness (symbolized by the color white) from guilt and mendacity (symbolized by the color black), then this insistence on dichotomous structures finds itself both prefigured and tacitly unsettled already in the film's opening title. It is unambiguously called into question by the time seventy-five-year-old Ernst Jacobi, who enacts the voice-over of the aged schoolteacher, begins this pensive tale, and does so in a manner reminiscent of Hegel's phrase of the "moderne Verlegenheit um den Anfang" (51).
   Ich weiss nicht, ob die Geschichte, die ich Ihnen erzahlen will, in
   allen Details der Wahrheit entspricht. Vieles darin weiss ich nur
   vom Horensagen, und manches weiss ich auch heute, nach so vielen
   Jahren, nicht zu entratseln, und auf unzahlige Fragen gibt es keine
   Antwort. Aber dennoch glaube ich, dass ich die seltsamen
   Ereignisse, die sich in unserem Dorf zugetragen haben, erzahlen
   muss, weil sie moglicherweise auf manche Vorgange in diesem Land
   ein erhellendes Licht werfen konnen.

The "Vorgange" to which the narrator so ominously alludes here are, of course, the conflagrations of the Second World War and the atrocious crimes of National Socialism--crimes that, he intimates, are strangely foreshadowed by the events from 1913/1914 that he is about to relate. Precisely because of this purported parallel or even trajectory it appears all the more astounding that this narrator, who talks for almost two and a half hours (see also Williams 48), has so little to say about his own role in those "Vorgange in diesem Land." What kind of witness are we dealing with here? Why this vagueness of his account, which relies on "hearsay" and disparages itself as "obscure" and "strange" as if it strained credulity? Does this schoolteacher have something to cover up, to hide, or to deny? A wrongdoing, an ignominy, a disgrace, guilt? And what if Haneke's film does not simply present itself as an enclosed forum for the negotiation of guilt and innocence--to be studied from a secure distance--but if instead the viewer is meant to be put on the stand as well and confronted (metaleptically) with those same negotiated questions of guilt and innocence? What if the question of guilt and the denial of guilt is not only pivotal with regard to the schoolteacher but also, inevitably, with regard to us, Haneke's spectators?

The Doctor's Fall and the Fall of Man

The extent to which theologico-ethical questions of guilt and denial of guilt dominate the film from its very first moments becomes apparent as the schoolteacher "begins" his story--a "beginning" that, after all that has happened (albeit for only two minutes) is no real beginning anymore. (3) As the schoolteacher indicates that his account could "moglicherweise auf manche Vorgange in diesem Land ein erhellendes Licht werfen," light is shed on Haneke's thus far dark screen. Cinematographically, this effect is achieved by means of a fade-in, which, notably, occurs at no other point during the film. In a certain way it seems as if the central motivic color "white" comes into being on the screen ("And God said, Let there be light," Genesis 1:3) and, as such, establishes the differential system suffusing Haneke's film--both in terms of color (black/white) as well as figuratively (guilt/innocence). Precisely because the motif of the white ribbon does not produce undifferentiated innocence but impure differentiation, the promise of a truly white ribbon, of true, genuine, uncontaminated "innocence," "purity," "virtue," etc., seems forestalled from the outset. (4) And the hopelessness of a quest for true innocence (which denies its differential logic and disavows the differential other that it ineluctably produced) appears to be reinforced by how "it all begins"--with a "fall," the fall of the doctor, who, as part of an oddly unsettling establishing shot, hurdles full speed toward the lens of the camera only to crash right in front of it:
   Begonnen hat alles, wenn ich mich recht entsinne, mit dem
   Reitunfall des Arztes. Nach seiner Dressurstunde im
   herrschaftlichen Reitstall war er auf seinem Ausritt erst zu seinem
   Hause geritten, um nach eventuell eingetroffenen Patienten zu
   sehen. Beim Betreten des Grundstucks stolperte das Pferd uber ein
   kaum sichtbares, zwischen den Baumen gespanntes Drahtseil.

Just as the lightening-up of Haneke's diegetic world is inscribed onto the screen, so the doctor's fall almost threatens to break through the screen as he is thrown off his horse and toward Haneke's spectators, who--Haneke leaves little doubt about this--play a conspicuous role in his tale. What precipitates the doctor's fall (the "fall of man")--which leads to his hospitalization and, consequently, his absence from the cinematic stage for a good third of the film--is a wire tied, ironically, around a tree (a "tree of knowledge"). Whatever follows, one could presume, follows from an aprioric state of guilt. We live, for better or for worse, always already in guilt, inexorably, and through no fault of our own. Yet if guilt is certain a priori and merely requires its concretization--in what then, exactly, does the guilt at issue in Das weisse Band consist? What is its nature, what is our part in it, and how can we possibly account for or respond to it, that is, take responsibility?

"God's Sacred Barriers," or the Guilt of Parents

Recall how the pastor--simultaneously playing the role of father figure and servant of God--conducts a particularly adamant conversation with his son Martin, with the intention of "convicting" him of having succumbed to the deleterious temptation of masturbation. Haneke shapes this scene, which in its conduct resembles that of an interrogation, on the basis of an excerpt from a late eighteenth-century pedagogical reader by Peter Villaume, entitled Uber die Unzuchtsunden in der Jugend, which, among other things, presents itself as exemplar for the upbringing of juveniles (see Naqvi 137). Accordingly, the father reports of a purported boy who
   bei irgend jemand gesehen [hatte], dass der sich an den feinsten
   Nerven seines Korpers schadete, wo auch Gottes Gebot heilige
   Schranken errichtet hat. Der Knabe ahnte diese Handlung nach und
   konnte nicht mehr damit aufhoren, zerruttete so schliesslich alle
   Nerven seines Korpers derart, dass er daran zugrunde ging. Ich will
   dir nur helfen. Ich liebe dich von ganzem Herzen. Sei aufrichtig,
   Martin! Warum bist du so rot und unruhig geworden bei der
   Geschichte des armen Knaben? [...] Sei aufrichtig, Martin! Warum
   weinst du? Soll ich dir dein Gestandnis ersparen?

It is rather ironic that the father repeatedly appeals to his son's "sincerity" given that the story he tells to intimidate and "discipline" the boy and induce a "confession" is fabricated from beginning to end. The correspondence between the father's super-vision and God's super-vision is not only conjured up by the corporeal dominance of the father (whose dual role as patriarch and spiritual leader references the Almighty) within the cinematic frame, but also by the cross in the back of the room (Figure 1), whose elevated and portentous presence appears to oversee the conversation as part of the mise-en-scene, invoking the agony of the crucifixion of the Son of God.


Broadening the scope of this discussion reveals an oblique correspondence with Bentham's/Foucault's well-known model of the panopticon, insofar as the efficacy of that model ultimately did not rely on excruciating violence by individual guards against prison inmates. The specificity of the panoptic model consists, in Foucault's words, rather in the fact that "it automatizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as [...] in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up" (202). It is this machinic character of the panoptic system that, religiously inflected, finds itself manifested in Haneke's film, and, as such, relativizes the individual parents' accountability as those in charge. Just as they appear as innominate figures or types (the Baron, the Pastor, the Schoolteacher, the Steward, the Midwife, etc.), so they are part of (as well as subjected to and determined by) a regulatory system. Guilt, rather than being tied to individual agents, appears as an inevitable condition of modern depersonalized schemes of power.

Such automatization, de-individualization, and ultimately relativization of responsibility in favor of predesigned, preestablished, preconceived modes of action characterizes much of the adults' actions in Das weisse Band, including the scene that revolves around the eponymous white ribbon. "Das weisse Band ist ein starkes Bild," Alexander Kluge says in an interview with Haneke, who replies:

Ich habe [...] uber die Zeit [...] und [...] uber Erziehung gelesen, und die Geschichte mit dem weissen Band, wenn man also einem Kind so ein Band umbindet, um es durch die Farbe weiss [...] [an] die Reinheit [...] zu erinnern, aber gleichzeitig naturlich mit dieser "Auszeichnung" das Kind an den Pranger stellt [... ] das war ein Beispiel aus einem Erziehungsbuch, was von einem Padagogen Eltern im neunzehnten Jahrhundert gegeben wurde um Kinder zu bewahren, bestimmte Dinge nicht zu tun, und das fand ich naturlich unglaublich und habe es dann hineingenommen in den Film, wie uberhaupt viele Beispiele in dem Film aus Buchern genommen sind, Erziehungsbuchern uber die Zeit (Haneke, Interview with Alexander Kluge).

The bifurcated logic of the white ribbon--which, on the one hand, evokes purity, and, on the other, implies the children's regress ("gleichzeitig naturlich mit dieser 'Auszeichnung' das Kind an den Pranger stellt")--in a certain way evokes what the invisible guard in Bentham's prison is supposed to accomplish: the conditioning of the "prisoner" through the forced internalization of codified norms, that is to say, the production of submissive bodies. Unmistakably, the symbolic component of the children's punishment--epitomized by the white ribbon--is more effective than the subsequent part, which relies on physical violence. "Als ihr klein wart, hat eure Mutter euch bisweilen ein Band ins Haar oder um den Arm gebunden," the pastor explains to his children who are late for dinner.
   Seine weisse Farbe sollte euch an Unschuld und Reinheit erinnern.
   Ich dachte, dass in eurem Alter Sitte und Anstand genug in eurem
   Herzen herangewachsen sind, dass ihr solcher Erinnerung nicht mehr
   bedurft. Ich habe mich getauscht. Morgen [...] wird eure Mutter
   euch erneut dieses Band umbinden und ihr werdet es tragen, bis wir
   durch euer Verhalten wieder Vertrauen gewinnen konnen in euch.

Echoing the disciplinary effect of the panopticon that does not hinge on excessive violence but is brought about by careful observation, control, and internalization, the pastor's measures for his children rely heavily on the psychological degradation and demotion associated with the white ribbon. To be sure, it would be misleading to characterize the father unequivocally as a Foucauldian prison guard or even as a "sadist." His methods are concordant with contemporaneous pedagogical practices and motivated by the objective to turn his children into responsible members of society (see Haneke, Interview with Thomas Assheuer 163). These historical valences are crucial to the present considerations as they serve to contextualize the father's automatized and disindividualized logicality of action, which appears largely dissociated from questions of personal responsibility.

It is not by chance that the motif of the white ribbon, too, is taken from a "theoretische-praktische Anleitung zu einer regelmassigen Erziehung der Kinder," where parents'"roles" and the actions they are to perform are spelled out in detail (Heusinger). (5) Haneke's cinematic enactment aptly underscores the automaticity of this educational modus operandi in its alignment with a prescribed pedagogical and social order. In a peremptory speech, the patriarch first indicts his tardy, apologetic children, then immediately pronounces a verdict. Leaving out any affective involvement and assessing the situation in light of the accepted social order, he declares:

Ich weiss nicht, was trauriger ist: euer Fernbleiben oder euer Wiederkommen [...]. Ihr seid wohl mit mir einer Meinung, dass ich euer Vergehen nicht ungestraft durchgehen lassen kann, wollen wir in Hinkunft wieder in gegenseitiger Achtung miteinander auskommen. Ich werde euch deshalb morgen Abend, um die gleiche Zeit, vor euren Geschwistern jeweils zehn Rutenschlage zuzahlen. Bis dahin habt ihr Zeit, uber die Schwere eures Vergehens nachzudenken. Seid ihr damit einverstanden?

Klara: Ja, Herr Vater.

Martin: Ja, Herr Vater.

The intercut faces of the siblings and especially the petrified, fretted face of the mother, who, against all intuition, assists the father in his actions, prefigure the problematic status of spectatorship, which, as will become increasingly apparent, applies just as much to Haneke's audience as it does to any character in the film. The actual performance of the punishment in the presence of the siblings, that is to say, the contiguity of juridical and theatrical discourse, cements the legitimacy of the sentence and establishes a memorable precedent before the eyes of the other family members. Remarkably, Haneke's enactment of educative violence, this presumed disciplinary spectacle, this mise-en-abyme, is invoked yet never shown--all aspects of the punishment itself are concealed from the viewers'eyes. Instead they are relayed acoustically, in a separate and hence particularly pronounced sequence. The boy's groans of pain, his cries, are audible through the door, the door that, on the one hand, seems to signify his entrapment and, on the other--as frame within the frame--emphatically accentuates the spectators' role as spectators (Figure 2). For eighty-three seconds the eye of the camera is bound to the door behind which a spectacle of cruelty unfolds. Hearing the child's cries of pain induced by his father's strokes, the viewers--or rather, the listeners--feel inclined to reflect and ask questions regarding the diegetically presented or rather not presented violence. And it is precisely this non-presentation that prompts the further questioning of what it means to stage violence cinematically in one way or another and even--in a broader axiological sense--what it means to experience violence spectatorially, what it means to perceive it, to hear it happen, and allow it to happen. In a 2005 interview Haneke anticipates certain issues raised by Das weisse Band, saying that in his work

violence as the perpetration of an offence hardly [occurs]. It occurs as what it really is, as the suffering of the victims. In this sense, the viewers see what it actually means to use violence and that's why viewers also find the films painful. But where I do show the use of violence, I try to make it clear to viewers through formal means that they are voyeurs, and put them off the "consumption" of violence.... I think that the audience has little chance to enjoy the violence or to feel guiltless in participating in its use (Haneke, Interview with Franz Grabner 37).

Haneke states that he seeks "to make it clear to viewers through formal means that they are voyeurs," culpable and perhaps even complied with his characters' actions or lack thereof. Yet what are the formal devices that Haneke deploys here? No doubt, the decision not to show the act of violence at the center of this scene is a formal decision of far-reaching consequence, one that is found throughout Haneke's oeuvre and undoubtedly in Das weisse Band--in the context of the caning of the pastor's children, for example, or as the steward beats his son for a stolen flute. Both acts of corporal punishment are unequivocally evoked on an acoustic level, yet in both cases they take place off-screen, remain invisible, (6) capturing the viewers' imagination and, concretely, their ethical powers of imagination. (7)


The cinematic enactment of the punishment of the pastor's children, however, appears noteworthy for another formal device, which punctuates the film time and again: the camera's exceptionally persistent gaze at the door behind which the domestic horrors unfold, that is to say, the employment of long takes. "[OJne needs time to understand what one sees," Haneke remarks with regard to his film Code Unknown (Haneke, Interview with Christopher Sharrett 31). (8) Commenting on 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, he elaborates on the deployment of the long take by sketching out how he expects viewers to respond: "I get it, next scene [...]. Then, it amuses me. Then, it infuriates me. Then, it tires me. Then, I say, 'Let's see where this goes.' And at one point, I begin to watch.' Because the scene lasts as long as it does you come to another understanding" ("71 Fragments"). (9) What other understanding does Haneke's film allow for? What cognitive effects does his long-take cinematography invoke, what epistemic repercussions does it trigger? (10) Andre Bazin famously wrote of the long take that it
   takes in with equal sharpness the whole field of vision contained
   simultaneously within the dramatic field. It is no longer the
   editing that selects what we see, thus giving it an a priori
   significance, it is the mind of the spectator which is forced to
   discern, as in a sort of parallelepiped of reality with the screen
   as its cross-section, the dramatic spectrum proper to the scene
   ("An Aesthetic of Reality" 28). (11)

The long take, Bazin holds, stimulates an "active mental attitude on the part of the spectator" ("The Evolution of the Language of Cinema" 35f.) (12) and--one might extrapolate with regard to the grammar of Haneke's cinema--implicates him/her ethically, induces him/her to discriminate between right and wrong, innocence and guilt, and, even prior to that, to reflect on the possibility or impossibility of such distinctions. As subsequent discussion will demonstrate, Haneke's tenacious long-take cinematography precipitates, beyond the implacable logic of crime and punishment, a "skeptical engagement" with and suspension of moral verdict (Rhodes 100). Above all, it leads viewers to scrutinize their own perspectives on and culpable involvement in the ethical issues at stake. (13)

"The Right Hand of God," or the Guilt of Children

Thus far this article has dealt primarily with modes of spectatorship vis-a-vis the educative efficacy of the parents' actions, and it might be revealing to shift the focus now to those furtive acts of terror implemented by the children. The children's terror, needless to say, forms in Haneke's film the dramatic centerpiece around which much of its narrative revolves, concentrically, cautiously. It appears as if this violent terror, whose execution is rarely witnessed and whose logic remains arcane, is informed by intransigent, indeed, fundamentalist, principles. Yet what, exactly, characterizes the children's counter-violence, which, at least at first blush, appears as a reflection of and response to the parents' education of them? What is its reasoning, what is its operational logic, and what, in the purview of Haneke's film, its presentational logic? And how, to raise the perhaps most interesting question, does it affect Haneke's spectators?

Organizing the children's crimes into broad categories would yield three different sets. The first set, to which incidents such as the doctor's fall or the arson at the barn belong, encompasses crimes perpetuated against the parents. Other crimes--which could make up a second category--are directed at children, such as Sigi, son of the Baron, or Karli, son of the midwife and doctor, or Gustl, the steward's infant. A third category seems to be constituted by incidents that do not necessarily lend themselves to description as "crimes," such as the work accident of the "Frau eines kleinen Bauern," Felder, in the sawmill--incidents that defy any subsumption in the skein of crimes yet are listed by the narrator in line with the other successively narrated incidents and characterized as similarly mysterious.

A possible point of departure into an investigation of the children's violence presents itself with perhaps the most gruesome of all crimes: the mayhem unleashed against the mentally disabled son of the midwife. Oddly enough, the steward's daughter claims to have a premonition of this crime based on a bad dream, which she recounts to the schoolteacher, who shows no skill in deciphering the girl's compunctions. The villagers find the boy in the woods one night, a sack over his head, with fuliginous, sooty eye-sockets, and a sign tied around his neck, stating: "Denn ich, der Herr, dein Gott, bin ein eifriger Gott, der da heimsucht der Vater Missetat an den Kindern bis in das dritte und vierte Glied." What is to be made of this menacing message, a verse from Exodus 20:5? Should it be read as a signature of sorts, as an annotation to what motivates the child-criminals' deeds? In that case one might assume that the children, as part of their numinous mission, were punishing "der Vater Missetat" that was enacted upon them. To recall the enigmatic words that the pastor's son, Martin, while balancing over the railing of a bridge, utters to the schoolteacher the day after the doctor's (conspiratorially launched) "accident": "Ich habe Gott die Gelegenheit gegeben, mich zu toten. Er hat es nicht getan, also ist er zufrieden mit mir." The children punish their parents'wickedness in the name of divine authority, and as the children punish in the name of God, that is, as vicarious executors of God's will, so do the majority of the punished individuals, including Karli (the doctor's son), Sigi (the Baron's son), etc., suffer their punishments merely in lieu of their iniquitous parents. The children, who experience religion as an instrument in the hands of the parents, employ the exact same religious framework to take action against them. They do not invent any rules but merely radicalize the rules under which they were brought up. (14) Rereading the quotation tied around Karli's neck--the message provided by the children as a way of communicating the motivation behind their crimes--in this new light, it appears that the children's violence (against the parents and their children) is decisively not a straightforward form of counter-violence for the suffered agony and inflicted pain per se. Against all appearances, the children do not avenge themselves in a one-dimensional retributional sense but rather absolutize the normative standards that were proselytized to them by their parents, and inflict them, in consequence of their absolutist reading, on the parents and their offspring. They deny their seemingly godless parents the status of executors of God's will and appoint themselves--as a result of the performed absolutization of internalized standards--representatives of God's judging and punishing authority. That is implied, just about, by the metaphor that Haneke initially considered as a possible title for the film: "The Right Hand of God." The children think of themselves as the right hand of God and therefore arrogate to themselves the right to judge and punish those who lead a life they deem improper (see Haneke, Interview with Alexander Kluge).

Remarkably, while in some cases the fathers' iniquity results in a punishment of the fathers (e.g., the unhorsed doctor or the barn fire), the parents' progeny suffer almost greater pain than the parents themselves, perhaps because they are more readily available, more vulnerable: take, for instance, the Steward's infant who nearly dies from hypothermia, or the Baron's maimed son (Sigi), or the mentally disabled son of the doctor (Karli), or, even weaker than the children, the pastor's canary (Pipsi). The enactment of the parents' disciplining of their children and the enactment of the children's disciplining of their parents--which at this point can hardly be discerned from Haneke's artful cinematic enactments--repeatedly appear linked. For example, the note tied around Karli's neck is affixed with a piece of white string, metaphorically evoking the "white ribbon" (Figure 3; see also Naqvi 142), (15) that very stigma of parental power that the pastor coerces his children to wear (Figure 4). When the children's beating of Sigi leaves his "Hinterteil blutig von Rutenhieben," it is precisely this same form of punishment that the pastor imposes upon his own children, Martin and Klara. And when the pastor hands his daughter the chalice during communion, uttering the words "Nimm hin und trink! Das ist das Blut des Neuen Testaments, fur dich vergossen zur Vergebung der Sunden" (Figure 5), the ceremony unfolding before the cross is in a certain way an inversion of the punishment the daughter inflicts upon her father by "crucifying" his beloved bird, which, in an allusion to the crucifixion of the Son of God, is left on the pastor's desk with a pair of scissors in its throat (Figure 6). As the pastor, the spiritual leader of the community, preaches to his congregation, so the religious laws he invokes are, in turn, imposed on him by his child Klara, "Kind des geistlichen Fuhrers,''who--emblematic of the perpetuation of violence from generation to generation--already serves as "geistliche Fuhrerin" (of the group of children) in her own right.



Haneke suggested that the moral rigor characteristic of the children of Eichwald exemplifies a particular form of Lutheran Protestantism prevalent at the time in northern Germany, where the dramatic action is situated. "Why did you set the film so precisely in that region?" he was once asked in an interview, to which he replied:

Because of a particular form of Lutheran Protestantism that's there in northern Germany. When I was first thinking about the project, I kept asking myself why so many Nazis, in explaining their actions, would reply--like Eichmann, with no apparent sense of guilt or conscience--that it had been their duty as loyal servants of the Reich. I felt that this way of thinking about one's responsibilities to a superior was closely linked to the Protestantism of Luther (Haneke, Interview with Geoff Andrew 16).



Haneke characterizes Lutheran Protestantism as intimately tied to a certain form of "moral rigor" (Haneke, Interview with Geoff Andrew 16). "The rigor is justified by religion," he elaborates, "since it appears to serve a higher purpose" (Haneke, Interview with Thomas Assheuer 161). If Das weisse Band is a film about fascism--and the portmanteau of "Eichmann" and "Buchenwald" in the name of the fictitious place "Eichwald" seems to suggest as much (see Kummel)--then this, perhaps, is the case first and foremost in view of the shared underlying dynamic of such moral rigor. While as interviewee Haneke routinely rebutted readings of his film that sought to identify Protestantism as a breeding ground for certain fascist tendencies, (16) his film indeed invites such interpretations. The film specifically seems to suggest these trajectories insofar as the children, in the film's diegesis, appear as victims, yet--barring any drastic changes in their violent natures--will likely cheer for Hitler as adults in 1933. This, after all, is the tacit historical subtext of Das weisse Band.

A similarly motivated approach to the phenomenon of National Socialism underlies Katharina Rutschky's renowned collection Black Pedagogy, a compilation of excerpts from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pedagogical readers and educational novels, which today appear invariably perverse, sadistic, or manipulative. It is in this anthology that Haneke found the aforementioned literary texts of a father's conversation with his reticent son about masturbation as well as the eponymous tale including the motif of the "white ribbon." (17) There is a certain irony in the fact that Rutschky's book (a by-product of her dissertation, which she began in the 1960s but never completed) appeared in 1977, (18) the year of the so-called "German Autumn," when left-wing violence in Germany culminated and challenged the political apparatus in a terror that in many ways presented itself as an uncanny reflection of the abhorred Nazi crimes (see Becker and, more recently, Kraushaar). And it is this similarity between left-wing and right-wing terrorism with respect to both ideologies' underlying "moral rigor" that leads Haneke to relate his film to "the opposite end of the spectrum: the German leftwing terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof group":

Gudrun Ensslin was the daughter of a pastor. Ulrike Meinhof also came from a Protestant and very religious home. In their moral rigor, they did not balk at committing crimes for a "good cause"--that is, a cause they deemed good. They were one hundred percent convinced that what they were doing, the crimes they were committing, aided humanity and were good. They, too, did not have a guilty conscience. I knew Ulrike Meinhof personally. She was a highly intelligent, socially very engaged woman, who acted with incredible energy on behalf of oppressed people. But this rigor went so far that it led to committing crimes. This story and that of Eichmann made me think about the whole complex. (Haneke, Interview with Roy Grundmann 597)

It appears to be such "moral rigor" that--religiously inflected--characterizes the terror of the children of Eichwald. Though it is not possible within the constraints of the present discussion to delve into the intricate historical period of the "German Autumn," a thorough appreciation of Haneke's film does require an understanding of the various historical dimensions that permeate it: beginning with the educational methods of the nineteenth century; the outbreak of World War One triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, evoked toward the film's end; the silently anticipated outbreak of World War Two; the shattering months of the German Autumn; and, if one were to follow Haneke, even present-day religious fundamentalism. This last step necessitates a departure from the confines of German-specific history, but for Haneke, doing so is not problematic. In an interview with Rudiger Suchsland, in fact, he is quick to assert his model's "applicability" to different cultural contexts:

You can transfer this [model] to the paramount example that resonates in the film: German fascism. But you can also take it further to terrorism in our days or to all kinds of religious fundamentalism--not only to today's Islamists, though of course to them as well.... [T]his basic model is the same everywhere (Haneke, Interview with Rudiger Suchsland).

Just as much as extending the scope of this argument to historical events today brings out the film's "actuality," an effect no doubt desired by Haneke, attempting to extract an alleged contemporary topicality from this community of children, which Haneke describes (in diverse interviews) as a "model" or "metaphor" (Haneke, Interview with Roy Grundmann 598), (19) brings with it the danger of reductionism or trivialization. And in a certain way Haneke's film operates much more carefully than Haneke, in those interviews, seems capable of doing. The attentive spectator of his film is bound to detect myriad conflicting moments that resist abstraction and generalization. Recall, for instance, the moment when Felder's son enters the barn and finds himself confronted with the dead body of his hanged father--an image eerily at odds with the ceaseless laughter of his siblings outside the barn. What are we to make of this aesthetically evoked paradox that disturbs and complicates the presumably tragic issues here? It appears unintelligible when, in the scene of old Felder's funeral, one of the attending farmers refuses to shake young Felder's outstretched hand--a visual detail hardly discernible in a frame that perhaps qualifies as the most fairytale-like in the film, displaying a seemingly antediluvian interment with horses carrying a coffin through deep snow. Similarly, the first few minutes of the film relate the mysterious death of the wife of the tenant farmer Felder in the sawmill, a "work accident" whose dramaturgic status remains enigmatic. Beyond these very concrete and often discrete instances in the film that resist narrative cogency, instances that, precisely because of their paradoxical or inconsistent nature, function as moments of suspense, there are frames in the film that elude epistemic appropriation altogether, such as the person sitting behind the corpse of Felder's wife--a person whose face is completely covered in darkness and unrecognizable.

An incident radically at odds with the reading put forth here is that of the burning barn, which would seem to be an act of arson committed by the children were it not for the fact that the pastor's son, Martin, while shackled to his bed, screams and shouts to alert his parents and prevent worse from happening. Here, he and his siblings act entirely in fine with the disciplinary code of behavior inculcated by their parents--and figuratively invoked by their depiction as prisoners (Figure 7). The children, who throughout the film figure as prisoners in the prison "Eichwald" (and indeed find themselves tied to their beds in not merely a figurative sense), are depicted in an overlapping reflection of their alleged crime, the burning barn. Just as they observe the fire (Figure 8), (20) so do we observe them (facing the camera)--through the mise-en-abyme of the window--in the act of watching, all the while being reminded of our role as spectators. Our spectatorial attention is directed toward the visual overlap of the figurative child-prisoners (exemplified by the Pastor's children), their incarceration (the window bars), and their putative resistance to this situation (i.e., the terrorist attacks exemplified by the burning barn). And yet, this explanatory approach that seems to follow from the film's overall narrative leaves unexplained why the pastor's son so vehemently tries to draw his parents' attention to the fire.



This and similar inconsistencies again and again stand in the way of a coherent understanding of the film. It is, no doubt, tempting to strip the film of its geographical coordinates, dissociate it from its distinctly German context and--following Haneke's claim of having explored the general "primal ground of every form of terrorism" (Haneke, Interview with Alexander Kluge)--apply it to various scenarios in the world that display enactments of fundamentalist terror. Yet it seems as if Haneke's film--with its impasses, ambiguities, and moments of uncertainty--is immune to such unequivocal readings.


This article began by pondering guilt as an aprioric given that merely leaves open the question of its concretization. If the children's doings (it might help to rephrase the issue at this point) are always already predetermined by the parents, if the children enact the rules and norms taught by their parents and hence perpetuate their parents' violence, if, in brief, the children are inevitably haunted by their parents' guilt, what, then, should prompt us, Haneke's viewers, to expect that we might escape from the orbit of guilt into which we are drawn as we follow and observe his filmic spectacle, susceptive to spectatorial identification and vulnerable to moral complicity? Is not guilt a genealogical parameter, as suggested by the Greek aition, which means both guilt and provenance (see Hamacher 79f.)? "Jedes weltgeschichtliche Moment verschuldet und verschuldend," writes Walter Benjamin, and "ein Weltzustand ist [...] immer nur Schuld (mit Beziehung auf irgend einen spatem)" (92). (21) Is not the Christian doctrine of original sin, which inscribes itself into Haneke's film from the outset, in its thinking precisely bound to such a dogma, according to which all action takes place in the ambit of an abysmal guilt? (22) This is, to be sure, an assumption suffusing all of Haneke's films, and it is one that, indeed, Haneke (in conversation with a film critic during the Cannes International Film Festival, where Das weisse Band was awarded the Palme d'Or) described as something that goes without saying. Asked whether the "film inquires less into the origin of evil than into a latent, general guilt," Haneke promptly responds:

Yes, of course, all my films revolve around the problem of guilt. I was born into and grew up in a Jewish-Christian context, where guilt is omnipresent. Moreover, it is a part of our everyday life. It is not necessary to be evil to be guilty. You can simply ignore something. We all live with our guilt [...].. If I talk about life, then I have to talk about that as well (Haneke, "Haneke at Cannes").

Yet how can we be guilty in view of a violence that we merely attend to from our spectatorial position? How can we be responsible, take responsibility, for a violence that we have neither caused nor could avert? One can certainly take issue with this theologically charged, putatively obtrusive doctrinarism, as some commentators indeed have, (23) or one might value Haneke's poetic treatment of the issues of guilt and denial and their persistent entanglement with the question of spectatorship as a space for reflection and intellectual challenge. Time and again, Haneke forces us to ask, with some consternation: How do we relate to the diegetic complexities unfolding before our eyes, how do they inform our ethical stance in the face of what is or is not depicted on screen, and how, above all, do they inform our ethos, both as viewers of his cinematic spectacles and beyond? A sensation of guilt accompanies us as Haneke's spectators all along, and it does so, if we adhere to Das weisse Band's visual architectonics, not merely in a strictly theological but indeed in an anthropological sense. How else are we to read those three penultimate long takes depicting the church as it successively disappears in the depths of the frame, moving, in three leaps, as it were, into ever greater distance from the camera's eye, thereby dissociating spectatorial perspective and specifically spectatorial guilt from any ecclesiastic dogma? How else to read these shots than as emblematic of the culpable state of the world, which Haneke here inflicts on us to think about, to think through, to appropriate and assume as our very own human condition? Of course, this leads one to muse on how Haneke finds his way out of all this, out of this oddly faultless cinematic spectacle. One at times wonders if the filmmaker, in an act of denial, seeks to outperform the aprioric fallenness he talks about. Which, in turn, would raise the intricate question of Haneke's own guilt as filmmaker and, indeed, add yet another dimension to Haneke's discussion of guilt and the denial thereof, an authorial guilt that, tacit as it must remain, might after all demonstrate Haneke's conviction of ubiquitous guilt irrefutably, indisputably, and perhaps even undeniably.


Rice University


(1) On the ambiguous connotation of the motif of the "white ribbon," see also Haneke, Interview with Thomas Assheuer (162f.).

(2) The subtitle remains untranslated in all foreign versions of the film and, as such, seeks to thwart predictable readings of this being a film about an expressly German topic. See also Michael Hanekes interview with Geoff Andrew (Haneke, Interview with Geoff Andrew 16).

(3) To speak of a true "beginning" seems at least questionable in a classical Aristotelian sense. "A beginning [apxq]," Aristotle writes in his Poetics, "is that which does not itself follow necessarily from something else, but after which a further event or process naturally occurs" (55). Das weisse Band's "second beginning," as it were, is no real beginning insofar as it cogently follows from the elaborate enactment of the opening credits.

(4) Fatima Naqvi indeed argues that Haneke "inverts" the conventional symbolic valences of "white" (innocence) and "black" (guilt) (141-43).

(5) For a nuanced analysis of Heusinger's literary text and Haneke's filmic "adaptation," see Naqvi (136-43).

(6) For a circumspect meditation on the "dialectics of sound and image" in Haneke's film, see Wilhams (52).

(7) Haneke has explicitly commented on the significance of off-screen action in his work and the resulting imperative that the spectator embrace an ethical stance. See Haneke, Interview with Geoff Andrew (17) and Haneke, Interview with Roy Grundmann (605f); see also Haneke, "Gewalt und Medien" (200f). It is not surprising that the status of spectatorship and spectatorial guilt in Haneke has been at the center of scholarly attention time and again. Peter Brunette, for instance, tackles Haneke's "complex and multifaceted exploration of violence" and contends: "Though it takes a different form each time, probably the most controversial aspect of this ongoing investigation has concerned what Haneke considers the 'consumable' way in which violence is represented in Hollywood movies. In this arena, he has consistently challenged critics and film viewers, in the name of art, to consider their own responsibility for what they watch and to ask themselves just what it is they are really doing when they seek to be 'merely' entertained by a studio-produced Hollywood thriller" (2). In a similar vein Libby Saxton reads Haneke's films as "a series of polemical correctives to the morally questionable viewing practices and seductive but duplicitous identifications fostered by mass media in general and mainstream cinema and television in particular" ("Close encounters" 84; see also 95). See also Saxton, "Secrets and revelations" (5).

(8) Also quoted in Rhodes (90).

(9) Quoted in Rhodes (93).

(10) In my reading of Haneke's long takes, I am particularly indebted to John David Rhodes's elegantly staged dialogue between Haneke's cinema and the film theory of Andre Bazin, as well as, albeit more obliquely, to Naqvi's discussion of Haneke's high angle shots in Cache (2005), Time of the Wolf (2003) and Benny's Video (1992). See Rhodes (87-102) and Naqvi (13-29).

(11) See also Rhodes, "The Spectacle of Skepticism" 89.

(12) Also quoted in Rhodes, "The Spectacle of Skepticism" 89.

(13) The question of complicit spectatorship in Haneke has most forcefully been pursued by Catherine Wheatley. Adhering to a distinctly psychoanalytic framework, she speaks of "a tension between the spectator's rational awareness of the film as a construct and their emotional involvement in the world that this construct presents, by engaging the scopophilic drive (through the use of generic convention) and then frustrating or rupturing that drive (through modernist techniques). At the point of tension between the active pleasure drive and the modernist obstacles that Haneke places in its way, an impact occurs whereby the spectator becomes aware of themself as complicit in the cinematic spectacle" (153; see also 184).

(14) This is what, in nuce, Haneke delineates as his basic idea for the film: "The real topic is [...] how people under pressure become receptive for ideology, i.e., how they even create their own ideology, how they absolutize an idea and then, with the help of this absolutized idea, punish those who preached this idea to them--but who live differently from the way demanded by that idea" (Haneke, Interview with Alexander Kluge).

(15) "Of course," Naqvi points out, "in the film the ribbons that tie the son to the bed to 'protect' him from masturbating at night are also white [...]. There are all possible kinds of 'ribbons' in the film: the wire which causes the doctor's fall, the rope that the farmer hangs himself with, the riding crop used to beat the children, the crocheted border, the tied-on sign. The polyvalence of this symbol and its entanglement with the disciplinary measures (and the possibilities of resisting them) can be read in the many associations evoked by the use of 'ribbons"' (139).

(16) See, for instance, Michael Haneke, Interview with Rudiger Suchsland.

(17) The present study was much inspired by Naqvi's in-depth discussion of Haneke's reliance on Rutschky (Naqvi 136-43). The first critic to have pointed out the significance of Rutschky's anthology for Haneke's film was, to my knowledge, Fritz Gottler.

(18) See Accessed 15 March 2016.

(19) See also Haneke, Interview with Alexander Kluge.

(20) On Haneke's poetic treatment of fire with regard to the questions of sacrifice and redemption, cf. also his film Wolfzeit and Sharrett (218f).

(21) See also Hamacher (80).

(22) Cf. also Jeammet (207-12).

(23) Cf. Haneke, Interview with Roy Grundmann (593f).

Works Cited

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Bazin, Andre. "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema." What is Cinema? Vol. 1. Berkeley: U of California P, 2005.23-40.

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Hamacher, Werner. "Schuldgeschichte: Benjamins Skizze 'Kapitalismus als Religion. Kapitalismus als Religion. Ed. Dirk Baecker. Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2003.77-119.

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--. Interview with Geoff Andrew. "The Revenge of Children," Sight and Sound 19.12 (2009): 14-17.

--. Interview with Franz Grabner. "'Der Name der Erbsunde ist Verdrangung': Ein Gesprach mit Michael Haneke." Michael Haneke und seine Filme: Eine Pathologie der Konsumgesellschaft. Marburg: Schuren Verlag, 2005. 33-46.

--. Interview with Roy Grundmann. "Unsentimental Education: An Interview with Michael Haneke." Companion to Michael Haneke. Ed. Roy Grundmann. Maiden: Wiley Blackwell, 2010.591-606.

--. Interview with Rudiger Suchsland, "Eine gewisse Arroganz ist in der Kunst kein Fehler" Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 15 October 2009.

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--. Interview with Christopher Sharrett, "The World That Is Known." Cineaste 28.3 (2003): 28-31.

--. "71 Fragments dune Chronologie du Hasard: Entretien avec Michael Haneke par Serge Toubiana." Michael Haneke Trilogy (The Seventh Continent, Benny's Video, 71 Fragments ofa Chronology of Chance). Tartan Video, 2006.

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Heusinger, Johann H. G. Die Familie Wertheim. Eine theoretische-praktische Anleitung zu einer regelmassigen Erziehung der Kinder; vorzuglich von dem sechsten bis in das vierzehnte Jahr. Fur Eltern und Erzieher. Gotha: Justus Perthes, 1800.

Jeammet, Nicole. Les destins de la culpabilite. Une lecture de l'histoire de Moise aux frontiers de lapsychanalyse et de la theologie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2002.

Kraushaar, Wolfgang, ed. Die RAF und der linke Terrorismus. 2 vols. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2006.

Kummel, Peter. "Von diesen Kindern stammen wir ab?" Die Zeit N.p., 15 Oct. 2009. Web. 18 Oct. 2012.

Naqvi, Fatima. Trugerische Vertrautheit: Filme von Michael Haneke. Vienna: Synema, 2010.

Rhodes, John D."The Spectacle of Skepticism: Hanekes Long Takes." On Michael Haneke. Eds. Brian Price and John David Rhodes. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2010. 87-102.

Saxton, Libby. "Close encounters with distant suffering: Michael Haneke's disarming visions." Five Directors: Auteurism from Assayas to Ozon. Ed. Kate Ince. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008. 84-111.

--."Secrets and revelations: Off-screen space in Michael Haneke's Cache'(2005)." Studies in French Cinema 7 (2007): 5-17.

Sharrett, Christopher. "Haneke and the Discontents of European Culture." On Michael Haneke. Eds. Brian Price and John David Rhodes. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2010. 207-20.

Wheatley, Catherine. Michael Haneke's Cinema: The Ethics of the Image. New York: Berghahn Books, 2009.

Williams, James S. "Aberrations of Beauty: Violence and Cinematic Resistance in Haneke's The White Ribbon! Film Quarterly 63.4 (2010): 48-55.
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Author:Blumenthal-Barby, Martin
Publication:The German Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUAU
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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