week 4 writing.


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Pre-War Trauma: Haneke’s The White Ribbon
Author(s): Garrett Stewart
Source: Film Quarterly , Vol. 63, No. 4 (Summer 2010), pp. 40-47
Published by: University of California Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/fq.2010.63.4.40
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Pre-War Trauma :
Haneke’s The White Ribbon
Technique is unsettling right from the start. A violent horseriding injury in eerily digitized treatment cuts to the victim’s
child rushing with odd composure to the scene—as if she’d
been waiting for it. From that point on in Michael Haneke’s
The White Ribbon, the physical violence is mostly off-screen
instead, with unsolved crimes involving beaten, maimed, or
slain bodies intermittently disrupting, until gradually forgotten, the daily round of a small German village in the years
leading up to—and beyond—World War I.
Crowding the frame, children are huddled everywhere
in the wake of these passing disasters, too soon and too close
for comfort: morose, secretive, unreadable. Are they the group
perpetrators of the local atrocities? That’s the question. And
this is Haneke, so it’s the wrong one. What we see, not so
much by historical sample as by parable, is an entire gen­
eration in the making—emerged from a black-and-white
Lutheran world that is captured in exacting period detail
even as its costs are tallied on the brink of modernity. But it’s
hard not to feel that the film’s conclusions, for all the dour
beauty of execution, seem entirely foregone. Mounting details, intriguing in the intricate, cryptic fit of their sequencing, exquisitely shot and piercingly edited, tell a crushingly
familiar tale: the private ferment of German national violence in the oppressions of domestic hierarchy.
Haneke’s 2003 masterwork, Caché (Hidden), rests on a
pervasive enigma similar to that of the village assaults in his
new film, forcing us to wonder who is terrorizing the French
TV host with invasive tapings of his private life. This is its
own kind of false lead. The media personality must for the
first time, and no matter by whom, be made not just to know
himself seen but, in an inversion of moral paranoia, to see his
whole world from the outside—both in its superficiality and
in the checked guilt that bolsters it. That’s the fable, conveyed by the rescanning of surveillance tapes in the “home
Film Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 4, pps 40–47, ISSN 0015-1386, electronic ISSN 1533-8630. © 2010 by the Regents of the University of California.
All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s
Rights and Permissions website, http://www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintinfo.asp. DOI: 10.1525/FQ.2010.63.4.40
theater” of bourgeois security. A rare Haneke film not to involve characters in an interface with the mediated screen
image, The White Ribbon finds a different way to deflect its
emphasis from detective plot toward parable. And, this time,
crimes of reprisal are easier for us to pin on the coming-of-age
children amid the sublimation by violence played out around
them in different registers of cruelty, most often sexual—but
with no TV to blame.
Absent all inset visual monitors, mediation in The White
Ribbon takes a more diffused form, layered in a different way.
It operates not only by means of a novelistic voiceover (by the
town’s former schoolmaster) but through a cinematography
modeled closely, the director acknowledges, on August
Sander’s photos of a mostly interwar and already defeated
German people, including many tense and staring children.
Here is the heritage film with a vengeance, mediating for
viewers almost a century later the preindustrial culture of a
still agrarian world into which the modern war machine is
about to storm. When war does come at the end, the voiceover
has it that “everything was about to change forever”—partly
because the pressure of violent enmity is about to go public,
programmatic. This being Haneke, the right question isn’t
whether or how the children stand together in a sadistic
cabal. We are led to ask, instead, what they stand for col­
lectively in the ingrained character of such callous violence.
With no local “solution” to the mysterious flare-ups of vicious
spite, the contagion shifts register. Social pathology marks the
path to National Socialism.
In nearly a hundred disjointed episodes, the story comes
across like hacked diagnostic fragments on a dissecting table,
cross-sections of a systemic malady. Stylistically, it is a return
from the probing long takes of Caché or Funny Games
(1997, 2007) toward the punctual cutaways in 71 Fragments
of a Chronology of Chance (1996) or Code Unknown (2000),
where parallel montage takes the pulse of urban contin-
sum m er 2010
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Culture of punishment
The White Ribbon. © Films du Losange. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
gency. In The White Ribbon, harrowing scenes of a more
variable length—like morbid outbreaks as much as narrative
incidents—are often linked by analogy if not direct causality
(psychic violence here, corporal violence there). Stressed by
editing’s circumstantial evidence, sometimes who’s done
what to whom may seem deceptively clear at the time: the
peasant son, for instance, is suspected to have abducted and
whipped the landlord baron’s child in revenge for the negligent working conditions that have led to his mother’s death.
Confirming this, one might think, is a whiplash cut from a
scene in which his father, beholden as farm laborer to the
baron, has twice slapped across the face the recalcitrant son
for his upstart and unsubstantiated rage—a cut straight into
the baron’s irate question to his own son’s tutor about
the boy’s disappearance, “What do you mean gone?” Class
resentment surfaces in a doomed revolt against patriarchal
cruelty and its feudal origins, leading to the apparent suicide
of the peasant father over his lost favor with the baron. And
if in the meantime the baron has publically exonerated the
man’s son (discovered to have been with his fiancée at the
time of the attack), we may still assume that the retaliation
has been carried out by proxy rather than coincidence.
Even when mysteries do coagulate, the plot never really
thickens. Instead, symptoms proliferate, technique standing
watch over each new breakdown of the village’s moral im-
mune system. In the earliest scene of familial violence, the
camera is stationed down a hallway that evokes a prison corridor before execution. Brother and sister are to be beaten by
their pastor father for being late for dinner. Having shut the
door behind him, suddenly the culprit son opens it again and
walks toward—and straight past—the tightly panning camera
to enter a darkened room from which he returns with the
needed cane. The victim is made instrumental in his own
pain. Tracking the perversity of this ritual is the unnerving
camerawork that follows him back to the parlor from the
other side of his original trajectory, flattening the vicious
­circle of discipline to a disorienting two-way street. Coming
toward us as one subject, a victim, he returns—along an alternate face of the same fateful route—as another subject, the
weapon-bearer. The wrench to our optical point of view captures the emotional disjuncture of a shamed self turned
against its own instincts, yet braced to get even. No rod will
be spared.
Haneke’s repeated insistence in interviews that his film
is not an etiology of Nazism, probing instead the general
origins of human evil, is made more difficult to accept when
the narrator begins by saying, however diffidently, that the
“strange events” to be reported might “perhaps clarify some
things that happened in this country.” And especially when
the film’s subtitle scrawls itself out in old-fashioned (and
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Cycle of violence
The White Ribbon. © 2009 X Filme Creative Pool, Wega Film, Les Films du Losange, Lucky Red, ARD Degeto, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Österreichischer Rundfunk Fernsehen,
France 3 Cinéma. DVD: Artificial Eye (U.K.).
never translated) script as “A German Children’s Story.”
True, “clarify” (with or without “perhaps”) catches the wrong
tone. And certainly the diagnosis of parental coldness and
returned filial malice has been the subject of almost all
Haneke’s films, a disconnect in family feeling that can turn
poisonous, literally in the murder–suicides of The Seventh
Continent (1989), figuratively in everything from Benny’s
Video (1992) to Caché. Yet the particular national context of
The White Ribbon remains hard to deny, even as it intersects
with much-debated psychohistorical claims about a homosocial youth culture that had grown up during World War I
under the shadow of absent fathers at the front, later mutilated or dead on return, and broken households in the meantime, emaciated mothers too overwrought for nursing or
nurture, with the lack of paternal identification further exacerbated by national humiliation in defeat.1 All this, so the
argument goes, bred a generational cohort vulnerable, after
years of fear and impotence, to the mirage of racial superiority in the name of the restored Fatherland.
Haneke backdates the question not only historically, to
the eve of World War I, but emotionally, to the family dy42
namic itself. In The White Ribbon, the problem is fatherhood, not its absence: an icy rancor fostered at the heart of
patriarchal households. In this, the film’s tacit social psychology comes more nearly into the orbit of explanations for
Hitler centered on his own and his generation’s corporal punishment in childhood, with its vindictive authoritarian backlash.2 But if this is a large part of the film’s ethical charge, its
narrative works to distribute the banality of such evil across a
mesh of oblique culpability until its depravities are not just
isolated but generalized, turned from psychological wounding toward political ferocity.
The film takes its title from the symbolic ribbon that the
sanctimonious pastor has his wife cut for their two eldest children to wear, as they had been made to do when younger: an
insignia of “innocence” (like his clerical collar). What was
once a “reminder” becomes a public stigma as well after they
are now “purified” by beating—anticipating, perhaps, the
black arm bands of the Hitler Youth as compensatory badges
of domination. Yet the son’s worst humiliation comes from
the strips of white bedsheet that render his arms immobile in
the name of noc­turnal purity. Hence the sexual counterpoint
sum m er 2010
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provided by a courtship plot between the schoolteacher and
a local nanny, another familial norm in the making, whose
fumbling celibate progress is finally stalled by her father’s insistence on an extended engagement—from which we cut to
a scene of more aggressive libidinal frustration. One curtailment of desire precipitates another until the explosion comes.
For editing has shunted us from the couple’s clasped-hand
acceptance of postponed consummation to the bedroom torture chamber in which the pastor’s boy is forcibly kept from
solitary sex, released from his bonds only to watch a distant
barn fire that he—or another of his youthful cadre—may
have been involved in plotting.
In a grueling scene that sets up this nocturnal ignition, a
puritanical harangue is punctuated in a cut to equally joyless
sex. Over many excruciating minutes, the minister goads his
son into an admission of self-abuse. In the father’s rhetoric,
sex is an aggravated abrasion of the sacred body’s “most sens­
itive nerves.” In a scare story about another boy under the
­pastor’s care, masturbation has led to exhaustion, pimples,
and death. Caught in a double bind, the son and the viewer
are equally cornered. When the boy begins to weep in embarrassment over his father’s object lesson, he immediately
has that flushed emotion used against him as proof of his
nighttime degradation. Why, the father prods, did he react in
that way to the story of the self-destroyer? “I don’t know—­
because I felt sorry for him”—a sentimental ruse, perhaps,
and one that would expose our own instinctive response to
the pitiable scene as somehow inadequate, facile. Technique
itself tells a harsher story, as we are thrust abruptly into the
next episode, launched in mid-orgasm with the vicious widowed doctor finishing himself off, fully clothed, over the bent
body of the local midwife.
There is no foreplay in Haneke’s editing either, as we
lunge from one burst pustule of humiliation and brutality to
another. And when psychoanalytic paradigms emerge, as
usual in his films, they are not in themselves determinant,
but rather the trace of other social deformations. What matters here is not that the bound boy is symbolically castrated
but that he is bound to take out this frustration elsewhere—
and otherwise. Following this episode, a blatant Oedipal scenario is not so much explanatory, or even contributory, as
figurative: a stand-in for all kinds of ruinous familial aggression. When the widowed doctor’s motherless young son,
missing his sister in the dead of night, eventually finds her in
front of his father on the office examination table with her
nightgown hitched up around her thighs, the whole malign
tableau flares up out of a pitch-black screen. Haneke has explained in interviews how only a digitally enhanced saturation of his black tones (in the transfer from more sensitive
color stock) permits the crisp definition of his night scenes. In
this most gothically staged of them, and across the seamlessness of a single roving shot, the transitional blackout eschewed by his antiseptically sharp editing has instead been
embedded within the continuous frame itself. Exposed to
view as the door slices open the blackness, the sister scrambles to explain that “father has pierced my earlobes” (just routine familial surgery) so that she can wear her dead mother’s
earrings. The previous holes had “grown back,” she thinks to
add, and her brother wonders whether any of this “hurts”—
while the nervous patriarch, discreetly zipping himself up in
front of his instrument cart, offers the sweaty quip, “You have
to suffer for beauty.”
If this incestuous primal scene skirts cliché in the reduction of all bad parentage to child abuse, that’s exactly what, in
a general sense, the film implies. But the force of this inference seems, yet again, more social and political than narrowly psychoanalytic, as editing in itself serves to suggest in
offering an immediate and alternate analogue of domestic
violation. The link is forged by jump-cut. Hinting that some
noncosmetic lesions never heal over, plot now leaps to the
filial revenge of another humiliated girl, equally grotesque
and sadistic in its own way, as we cut from the boy’s tearstreaked stare at his father fiddling with his medical tools to
the pastor’s disheveled daughter in her own nightgown, groping for scissors in his office drawer and then reaching into his
birdcage as the new scene breaks off. Oblivious for the first
time to what the spectator sees during his voiceover, the
schoolmaster’s retrospect speaks only of the village’s concern
for the girl in her “weakened and feverish” state—after she
has fainted in the schoolroom from her father’s public chastisements. But what we alone see explains what the pastor
must guess when he later finds the body of his pet bird
stabbed through in a travesty of crucifixion. No wonder, two
scenes later, that he delays at the altar, before his staring
daughter, in offering the confirmation wine: “blood of the
New Testament, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” The
Protestant ritual, absolution without confession, has become
a whitewashing.
In that preceding disjoin between unspied-on privacy
and voiceover chronicle, we have been reminded how
completely the scenes of domestic menace have lain beyond the ken of the teacher, narrated only by the camera
in the long intervals between his summary bridge passages. The foregrounding of this now, by overt mismatch,
seems timed for the venting of conjectures for which he
does indeed have less ocular proof than we do. And since
the minister by now suspects what his own household rigor
has spawned, the denial to come plays out as nervous
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The White Ribbon. © 2009 X Filme Creative Pool, Wega Film, Les Films du Losange, Lucky Red, ARD Degeto, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Österreichischer Rundfunk Fernsehen,
France 3 Cinéma. DVD: Artificial Eye (U.K.).
sum m er 2010
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cover-up—the teacher’s hints met with muted panic,
feigned outrage, and direct threats.
Just before this, another false scent becomes a true lead in the
ironies of the finale. We have previously cut in liturgical midsentence from the confirmation ritual straight to the most
heinous crime of all, a blood shed without forgiveness in the
mutilated eyes of the midwife’s mentally disabled child. With
this additional foreboding not only of arbitrary scapegoating
but of racial cleansing and eugenics, once again we may
sense the incubation of Nazi barbarity in childhood trauma.
It is here that the final misleading surmise (and genre sidetrack) is introduced, when one of the children tells the school­
teacher, in advance of the stabbing, that she has dreamed
about something terrible happening to the “retarded boy.”
When the worst does happen to him, the teacher turns
the self-announced clairvoyant in to the police, and in the
second scene of merciless badgering rather than tuition in
the schoolroom setting (following the fainting fit of the pastor’s hectored daughter), the detectives try browbeating the
girl into denying her story. She won’t. So what do we make of
her claim: second sight, magic omen, or, as they all think, a
mere guilty slip about a perhaps overheard and repressed
conspiracy? In raising this question, the film calls to mind the
structural definition of “the fantastic” as operating only when
you can’t tell if abnormal events are psychological anomalies
or supernatural interventions.3 Recoding such events in other
terms, as in the mode of fable, suspends or cancels the fan­
tastic genre as such. The explanatory crisis is forestalled and
transcended in a new key when enigmas signify beyond
themselves. If Caché is not about inexplicably hidden video
cameras but about seeing the whole edifice of bourgeois life
through the eyes of the other, then the mediated images
mean something else than unaccountable surveillance. Co­
nun­drum translates through irony to parable. The White
Ribbon, too, takes the final, if only faintly tantalizing, twist
of the whodunit plot, the question of second sight, and shifts
it to a different level of premonition. The aberration isn’t
­unheimlich at all, but homebred—and then, in turn, endemic
in its national ramifications. For on the historical as well as
psychological plane, the story is indeed about one’s worst
nightmares coming true.
Prompted by that dubious dream, when the teacher begins tentatively airing his suspicions to the minister in his
study, the paterfamilias quickly shuts windows and curtains to
closet what he senses coming. He then displaces the content
of the violence onto the form of the accusation itself, calling
it a “stooping to aberrations” both “monstrous” and “repul-
sive”—and adding (in a line of stinging ricochet): “It’s obvious you don’t have children!” He ends by threatening the
teacher himself with prison if he goes public with these
“criminal” charges. As with the recovered boyhood meanness
of Caché as well, and again resonating with a coming national and racial violence, certain defensive cruelties may be
all too human; the deeper crime is the refusal of all responsibility, breeding ground of worse. With the schoolmaster keeping things to himself to escape reprisal, and thus indirectly
summoning the twin specters of appeasement and denial in
the rise of fascist terror, we next enter upon a montage logic
of distancing per se.
The whole scrupulously framed sequence to follow offers a kind of coda to the half-hearted detective plot. The
­official quest for answers has come to a head only when it’s
too late to expect them in the festering spread of persecution.
The vilest of the characters and the most unjustly violated—
the bitter physician and the midwife’s son, whom he is last
seen treating in the bandaging of injured eyes—disappear
from the scene as its final mystery, even while an allegorical
loop is knotted tight: the white ribbon going from reminder
to scourge to shackle to blindfold. Once overt sadism and its
symbolic victim are subtracted from the sociological equation, we are left with only the residual murk of perverse complicities: the inferred banding together, ribbons or not, of
victims as predators in the fierce circuit of abjection and revenge that by now seems projected from disparate enigmatic
miseries to the temper of an intrinsic communal brutality.
Disjunctive lurches from one scene of vindictiveness to another have built in this way toward a diffusive violence rampant and depsychologized.
By this point even the camera stands back. Across the
telescoped gaps of three separate shots almost photographic
in their stillness—retreating from the crumbling church tower
along the main axis of the village street—the narrator’s hasty
replay of further gossip about the unsolved crimes shifts to
the declarations of war that convene the populace back again
on the inside of the church. The war is about to arrive as both
a distraction from the teacher’s suspicions and their objective
correlative writ large. Recalling the busy and underdefined
last frame of Caché, the final gathering at “solemn service”
transpires in a prolonged shot from the point of view of an
empty pulpit, with the still rushed voiceover—after noting
that the minister has never pursued his threats—anticipating
instead the narrator’s own imminent army draft and eventual
marriage. Before the pastor finally enters downstairs—as if to
assume his place in the dock rather than a pew—the schoolmaster himself has appeared upstairs to direct the children’s
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The White Ribbon. © 2009 X Filme Creative Pool, Wega Film, Les Films du Losange, Lucky Red, ARD Degeto, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Österreichischer Rundfunk Fernsehen,
France 3 Cinéma. DVD: Artificial Eye (U.K.).
sum m er 2010
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Here at last the embodied choric voice of the film’s own
narration stands forth in his internal role as choirmaster: a
figure marginal in its upper corner, yet still facilitating not
only the known hypocrisy of the children’s hymn but the
strength they draw from raising their voices in public. We’ve
in fact seen this authorized group formation of the otherwise
malevolent ensemble once before in this space, with the two
white ribbons prominently worn by the minister’s children.
But the difference is pointed. Again frame, scale, and distance turn camerawork to irony. Originally, the congregated
singers had filled the frame in a separate balcony shot, cut to
from the assembly downstairs at just the point where the
voiceover explains how previous accusations about the sources
of local violence have proven “untenable.” Hold, therefore,
on the children. By the wider final shot, however, this youth
cohort is subsumed to the bigger communal picture.
At which point of no return, another technical departure
for Haneke—beyond the voiceover, the period setting, and
the black-and-white treatment new to his feature films—
takes its symbolic toll. For The White Ribbon entails the first
strategic use of dissolve in his relentlessly quick-cut, razoredged editing. The effect brackets the narrative in two thirtysecond transitions, first a gradual fade-in and then an
answering fade-out. The film whose opening shot seems
dredged up, as if dimly and resistantly, from the black background of memory, speculation, and denial ends symmetrically in a literal foreshadowing, dissolving separate perplexities
into national disgrace, the baffling into the unspeakable. “I
never saw any of the villagers again,” and neither do we. In
part as an emblem of this, the frame has all the while been
surrendering their image lugubriously—irreversibly—as the
white-on-black ribbon of exposed film runs out toward cinematography’s own version of a darkness at noon.
Even less obtrusive editing than the final blackout can
accrue to a kind of montage figure. Now and then the confines of the film’s stultifying human world have been broken open by fixed-shot landscapes of the mercifully
unpeopled countryside, more Malick than Haneke. But
these are no ­relief either, since it is history itself that looms
at their van­ishing point, mass death in the offing.
Symmetrical rhyming shots are subsumed in this way to the
measure of the inevitable. In matching captures of the same
minimal vista, sparest of all, at the end of these quick-cut
sequences, we notice two trees edged to the left of the
framed horizon: first in the “blinding” white of the last
peacetime winter, then again as the calendar rolls round toward fruition and war. But there the immediately preceding
shot of unwaving grain is clearly a long-held photographic
Return to darkness
The White Ribbon. © 2009 X Filme Creative Pool, Wega Film, Les Films du
Losange, Lucky Red, ARD Degeto, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Österreichischer Rundfunk
Fernsehen, France 3 Cinéma. DVD: Artificial Eye (U.K.).
insert, unable otherwise to stop time before the winds of
change agitate the wheat fields in the capping frame. In this
summoned archetypal inflection of rural life, The White
Ribbon turns even the cycles of vegetation to parable, with
the grimmest of harvests soon to commence. The narrator
has earlier literalized an idiom by saying that the children
“pitched in” at a July hay-baling, where the community, in
that annual labor, forgets the unexplained violence that has
plagued its days. But in those later uninhabited shots of frozen and then fallow lands, history silences mystery. They, or
their like, will soon be killing fields.
1. Peter Loewenberg, “The Psychohistorical Origins of the Nazi Youth Cohort,”
American Historical Review 76 (1971), 1457–1502.
2. See especially the book by Polish-born, Swiss-based psychologist Alice Miller,
For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and the Roots of Violence
(New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983), trans. Hildegard and Hunter
Hannum, a bestseller in German as well as English editions in the decade before Haneke first conceived the idea for his film, which was then long-deferred
in scripting and production.
3. The classic statement of the case is Tzvetan Todorov’s The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 1975), where the defining genre tension between “the
­uncanny” and “the marvelous” is shown to collapse under the imposition of an
allegorical grid, which turns mysterious events to metaphors of something else.
For Todorov, this is not just a parallel interpretive track but an absolute negation of the genre’s founding “duration of uncertainty.”
GARRETT STEWART is James O. Freedman Professor of Letters at the University of Iowa.
ABSTRACT The surgical rigor of Haneke’s The White Ribbon lays bare the underlying
­brutality of family life in a German village, microcosm of a social order whose strictures
and class resentments fester on the eve of WWI. Punishment, abuse, and humiliation
tighten a mysterious web of spite and reprisal among the local children, with national
history waiting ominously in the wings.
KEYWORDS Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon, Nazi cinema, German cinema, allegory
and cinema
CREDITS Das weisse Band: Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte. Director, writer: Michael
Haneke. Producers: Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Michael Katz, Margaret Ménégoz,
Andrea Occhipinti. Cinematographer: Christian Berger. Editor: Monika Willi. © 2009
X Filme Creative Pool, Wega Film, Les Films du Losange, Lucky Red, ARD Degeto, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Österreichischer Rundfunk Fernsehen, France 3 Cinéma.
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Please watch video lecture 1, and contribute to the discussion (Haneke).
Link of Video lecture 1:
Guideline:Discussion 4 (Haneke)
In one of the interviews excerpted in video lecture one Haneke argues that “It’s a
sign of bad films that the audience always is supposed to know when someone’s
lying in any one scene.” Please choose one scene from the film “The White Ribbon”
and explain how it could be used as evidence for Haneke’s intention to “always try to
construct my stories in such a way that several different explanations are possible and
credible.” (200-250 words)
Please read Garrett Stewart’s essay Pre-War Trauma Haneke’s The White
Ribbon(2010) and complete this writing assignment.
Guideline:Writing 3 Haneke
Please identify and quote the main thesis of Steward’s essayon Haneke’s
film White Ribbon. What would be a possible counter-argument to his thesis?
What evidence from the film White Ribbon can you refer to to support and
substantiate your counter-argument. Even if you basically agree with Steward’s
thesis, develop for the purpose of this assignment a counter-thesis and
argument. (400-500 words)

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Peter M.
Peter M.
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Angela M.J.
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Lee Y.
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