Ever since auteurism shifted critical emphasis from a film’s story, character and intention to the director’s treatment of the material, “literary cinema” has been one of the most loaded labels that can be applied to a movie. Implying films that aspire to a novelist’s thematic and psychological sophistication, “literary cinema” is only secondarily concerned with cinematic expression, if at all. That disinterest in exciting technique or popular appeal helps to explain why such films are often dismissed as obsequiously catering to elitist culture.
Micheal Haneke’s The White Ribbon is a good example of what the best of “literary cinema” can achieve, however. Set in the year before the outbreak of World War I, it presents a realistic fable centered on a series of disturbing, increasingly nasty incidents that upset the placid surface of a German village. Upsetting in themselves, the incidents are all the more unnerving because no one can figure out who is responsible for them. Narrated in retrospect by the village school master, the film is a kind of dour detective story, in which the narrator and the viewer jointly struggle to sort through the events to figure out who is responsible for the outrages, and the reason for them.
He and we have to guess, because no one seems very motivated to uncover the perpetrator, even though everyone is clearly upset by the events. When the solution is revealed, however, we understand why there has been so little effort, because the answer is so disturbing that no one can accept or endorse it, including, one suspects, many viewers. We are left dangling, pretty sure that the schoolmaster’s explanation is correct, but never given the satisfaction of an explicit confirmation.
Such ambiguity is central to the “literary” approach. Like the best written fiction, The White Ribbon creates a richly detailed world riven with complexities that the author refuses to simplify for the reader’s easy identification or pleasure. Perhaps to give us something to hang on to, Haneke does subtly skew our reaction. The most sympathetic characters are those the narrator likes, which makes at least a little identification possible, but which also makes his solution more questionable as an expression of prejudice.
We are not aware of that prejudice while watching. The depiction is chillingly objective, even in moments of extreme stress. Indeed, the most powerful implication did not occur to me until a few days after watching the film. Carrying it in my head, sifting through the evidence, coming to terms with what I had seen, I had a realization about the situation that was blatantly obvious, but which took days to recognize. Such lingering, retrospective suggestion that suddenly makes everything fit is the kind of effect that thematically ambitious work can manage. Haneke could not have achieved the powerful results in The White Ribbon without considerable film making sophistication. But all of it is subordinate to that whopping recognition of what the film is really about.