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Cruel Attachments, Tender Counterpoints: Configuring the Collective in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon
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Cruel Attachments, Tender Counterpoints:
Configuring the Collective in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon

Introduction

In line with prominent topoi of Michael Haneke scholarship, most reviewers of The White Ribbon (2009), original title Das weiße Band, agreed that the film presents its twenty-first-century audiences with a starkly filmed, more or less Brechtian—and thereby belatedly modernist or even anachronistic—study on the emergence of fascism in an authoritarian German village cosmos on the eve of World War I.1 With its temporally removed voice-over narrator and its black-and-white aesthetics, the film evidently undertakes a critical analysis of collective violence that keeps its audiences at a distance.2 My own initial response was quite in line with that traditional reading. At best, The White Ribbon’s critical tale seemed to offer me a tangential alignment with the awkward teacher, whose attempts to solve the mystery of the portrayed violent incidents and whose second identity as the much older narrator keep him at a distance from the cruel village world. When I first taught the film [End Page 142] in an interdisciplinary graduate seminar, however, several students shocked me by declaring their emotional alignment with the village pastor, whose methods of constituting his religiously based family collective through discipline, both with the cane and the stigmata, gave the film its title—The White Ribbon—as a marker of temporary exclusion for presumed impurity. Clearly, this class discussion was a reminder of the crucial importance of audience positionality in mediating responses to any film. In tracing these different reactions in the classroom, however, I also revised my assessment of the film’s composition, namely of how it encourages or discourages specific forms of (affective as well as cognitive) audience engagement.3 Without entirely accepting my students’ take, I began to develop a more complex reading of The White Ribbon. Through this reading, I challenge dominant takes on Haneke’s oeuvre and, by extension, a number of entrenched categorical oppositions in cinema studies, including those of affect versus distanciation and (as I will explain) realism versus montage.

To be sure, this reassessment can draw in part on more recent work on Haneke. Scholars have begun to explore how his films rupture audience distance with offers of spectatorial identification (prominently with Juliette Binoche’s characters in the French features), with framings that create distance only by depriving the spectator of it (or making her “unsafe at any distance”), and generally through the ways in which “[a]ffect perforates the formalist surface of Haneke’s films.”4 In exploring these complications, however, recent Haneke scholarship still largely remains focused on the intersection of violence and unpleasure, which does not address my students’ more “positive” affective responses to The White Ribbon.5 Against the background of established oppositions between affect and distanciation as well as the association of Haneke’s auteurist signature with (distanciating) modernism, this recent scholarship has furthermore been haunted by tropes of contradiction and paradox, ambivalence and ambiguity.6 In this piece, I therefore make a suggestion for a more full-fledged reassessment. The alternative framework I propose is not necessarily suited for rereading Haneke’s entire oeuvre, which has perhaps been analyzed too exclusively through an auteurist lens anyway. Beyond its explicit focus on The White Ribbon, however, I hope that my reading can inspire a rethinking of a broader range of (more or less) independent films made in the last decade or so, perhaps as a “no longer modernist” cultural moment including but not limited to Haneke’s own Amour (2012).

This proposal draws on the work of Bruno Latour, who became known not least for his provocation that “we have never [End Page 143] been modern.”7 Specifically, my reading of The White Ribbon aims to reframe the terms of spectatorship analysis by way of a dialogue between the film’s invitations to relate to its historical village collective and Latour’s suggestions for “reassembling the social” or, as he words more emphatically, “the collective.”8 Latour’s respective plea can be situated as a part of a broader trend toward reconsidering collectivity in scholarship as well as society and the arts...