I suspect that this film is going to puzzle many audiences, irritate others and send some into rapture. It was noticeable that there was quite a healthy audience in our screening at 5.15 on a late Thursday afternoon, so Michael Haneke’s reputation and the film’s status as Palme d’Or winner appears to mean something. However, after 144 mins there was little audience reaction other than some muttering and shuffling of feet. Nick was not impressed but my response was more ambivalent.
I’d deliberately not read anything in detail about the film apart from the headlines. I knew it was in Black and White, that it was very long and set in 1913. I knew vaguely that it would somehow comment on later German history. On this basis, my first comment is that Haneke offers the audience few clues as to where the action is located or when. It’s only in the final section with mention of a famous historical event that it becomes clear when it is set. As to where, I think that perhaps I must have missed something because all the other reviews and comments I have read since make it quite clear that we are in a village in North Germany. I spent half the film thinking we were in South Germany or Austria and puzzling why it seemed to be a Protestant rather than Catholic community. Perhaps we were supposed to notice regional accents and dialects. My ear for German is not good, but I found myself following some of the dialogue which seemed to be in Hochdeutsch, so that wasn’t very helpful. In the North wouldn’t this have been plattdeutsch? Perhaps a German-speaker can help me out? The production notes suggest that the main scenes were filmed in Saxony and that makes more sense to me as it is close to the Austrian border. There are one or two other clues that made me think of Austria-Hungary (the Baroness travels to the Adriatic, still part of Austria at the time and the Baron refers to Polish workers on the estate). Perhaps the only conclusion I can draw is that I much prefer stories with at least a sociological/historical/geographical basis – I like to know the social context. Haneke, from my perspective wants to make ideological statements through some form of allegory/mystery without the trappings of precise social context. (In the interview below Haneke explains that many of the extras are actually Romanian since he couldn’t find North German rural faces that fitted the old photographs. He seems to be obsessed with realist detail, yet not concerned to place the narrative for us – odd, I think.)
The result is a strangely self-contained and isolated community – a village with a school, a doctor and midwife and church and pastor. There is an estate office and the ‘big house’ is occupied by the aristocratic landed gentry. The nearest town is several miles away and the narrative only once ventures so far and then only for an interior scene. It may be 1913 but there are no signs of 20th century modernity – no motor vehicles or railway and the only farm machinery as such is a steam-powered threshing machine. As Nick suggested, it could have been a Thomas Hardy adaptation from the 1880s in England.
The narrative offers a slow-paced and deliberate account over a year from the Summer of 1913 onwards. It follows the seasons and highlights a series of inexplicable incidents – accidents, forms of vandalism and personal attacks. The village is conservative, religious and severely repressed. Authority is taken seriously and the mysterious incidents are puzzling because they seem ‘disrespectful’. The story of the year’s events is narrated (seemingly from a much later period) by the schoolteacher who plays a central role as observer and facilitator of action. This helps to create the sense of looking back to what happened as if it will offer clues as to what happened later. But this is quite subtle – if there is an allegory about the rise of fascism it isn’t presented in an easily accessible form.
Two aesthetic decisions serve the general narrative intent – the Black and white cinematography with its careful compositions, longish takes and relatively static camera and on the soundtrack, the complete absence of non-diegetic (i.e. theme or ‘background’ music). The image is stark, clean and cold and for most of the time a great advertisement for digital camerawork and digital projection. I did however notice a couple of interior shots which broke up in the shadows with visible pixellation. I mention this because Haneke claims that the only B + W filmstock available now couldn’t cope with his interior shots and that is why he experimented and took great care with a digital shoot. I wish I knew more about this – I’m sure I’ve seen B + W prints from the 1940s-60s that were superior to this digital print, but possibly I’m looking back with rose-tinted specs.
The overal effect of Haneke’s approach is to suggest a kind of severe and disciplined observation of the past – certainly not a nostalgic ‘period’ or ‘costume’ kind of approach. It also suggests Haneke’s connection to several other filmmakers – those mentioned so far include Ingmar Bergman, Bela Tarr and Carl Dreyer – trio of North and Central European directors with highly distinctive styles and in the case of Bergman and Dreyer, an interest in the Protestant religions of Northern Europe. I confess that I know little about any of the three and even less about Lutheran/Calvinist communities, so I’m not really in a position to comment. But I do suspect that for some audiences, these kinds of connections elevate Haneke’s work, suggesting a seriousness associated with extreme cinephilia. I’d better own up and say that I wasn’t convinced by Haneke’s earlier Caché (Hidden) which I thought was too clever by half and failed to make the political statement that its supporters claimed for it. Das weisse Band I think falls into the same trap, but is more controlled and consistent. I admire the craftsmanship and I respect the intelligence in the production and direction, but I’d like a) some emotion and b) some more direct questioning. While I was watching this film about rural Germany represented in black and white I occasionally felt a longing to be back in the 1970s watching Fassbinder – Hanna Schygulla in Effi Briest (West Germany 1974) certainly, but any of Fassbinder’s early films made for no money in just a few weeks would do. I’d love to hear what Fassbinder would have made of Haneke.
One last thought – the German title of the film has a subtitle, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (a German children’s story, or perhaps a German children’s history). It’s clearly there in the film – that sense of spookily aware children, acting in concert, innocent yet potentially deadly. But as others have pointed out, if you want to be entertained by that kind of thing, you’d be better off with Wolf Rilla’s terrific version of John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos released as Village of the Damned (UK 1960). Rilla was a German-born filmmaker whose family had fled the Nazis in the 1930s.
Here is Michael Haneke discussing his film.