The White Ribbon (2009) – The Challenge of Empathy

To understand the films of Michael Haneke, one must first understand his deep ambivalence towards the themes and techniques of genre film-making.  In The Time of The Wolf (2003) it was the post-apocalyptic.  In Hidden (2005) it was the mystery.  In Funny Games (1997) it was the slasher.  All of these films would happily fit within the genre canons that inspired them were it not for Haneke’s almost visceral reaction against the cosily self-indulgent safety of genre.

To go and see a genre film is to arrive at the cinema with a certain set of expectations.  The purchase of the ticket is a contract : Scare me.  Thrill me.  Entertain me.  Move me.  We know what we want and we happily pay to receive it.

Haneke is a filmmaker who refuses all such contractual relationships.  He uses the methods of genre to engineer not the effects that audiences have been conditioned to expect, but rather something different.  Something far more subversive.  For example, in both versions of Funny Games, the story of a family’s torture and murder allows the filmmaker to challenge his audience’s desire to watch such atrocities.  At one point, Haneke allows one of his characters to escape their fate only for the murderer to pick up a remote control and rewind the film in order to foil the escape.  Audiences are to be denied the consolations of genre even if it means that the fourth wall must be shattered in the process.  The same is true of Hidden.  Haneke apes the mystery so effectively that the audience begins to tie itself in knots, picking over clues scattered throughout the narrative as to the identity of the stalker.  However, Haneke refuses to resolve this question, leaving instead the methods, motivations and identity of the stalker unanswered.  Soon the question changes from “who is doing this to the character?” to “what has the character done to deserve this?”.  The main character begins to pick over his past until he eventually uncovers some terrible secret.  A secret that might not have caused the film’s goings on but which could plausibly inspire them.  This is the whodunit not as a form of palliative reassurance that no crime will go unpunished.  Instead Hidden uses the themes and movements of the mystery genre to imply universal guilt, not only in its characters but in its audience.  Are you, the film seems to ask, really innocent?

Das Weisse Band – Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte
sees Haneke return to the same hostile and yet pragmatic relationship with genre themes and images to request of us a leap of empathy and understanding.

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