It’s hard to think of any contemporary filmmaker whose work is more insistently opaque than Michael Haneke’s. His films emphatically resist interpretation, laying out strange and sometimes bewildering scenarios that remain unresolved even as the end credits roll. As audiences, we’ve come to expect a certain amount of clarity from a film, at least by the end, so this impenetrability can sometimes feel daunting. But it squares well with Haneke’s overall project, which often involves exploring the consequences of various forms of hiding and secrecy.
In Caché and The White Ribbon, two very different films from the 2000s, Haneke picks up these themes. The movies are set almost a century apart and have little in common aesthetically. Caché, based roughly in the present day, has a more blunt, utilitarian style, while The White Ribbon, set almost a century before, was shot in moodier black-and-white and has a more graceful and traditional feel1. But as different as the films are in some key respects, they also feel like two parts of the same basic exploration.
Caché, released in 2005, tells the story of Georges Laurent, a television talk-show host, who is menaced by an unknown follower. Georges lives in a fashionable part of Paris with his wife, Anne, a book publisher, and their sullen, preteen son, Pierrot. At the beginning of the film, a videocassette arrives on the Laurents’ doorstep showing surveillance footage of the outside of their house. No explanation is given, and more mysterious deliveries soon follow. The tapes eventually lead Georges to an apartment on the outskirts of Paris where a middle-aged Algerian-French man named Majid lives with his son.
We discover that Majid’s parents worked on the Laurent family estate when he and Georges were children, and in 1961, along with an unknown number of fellow Algerians, Majid’s mother and father were drowned in the Seine by the French National Police. After the couple’s death, the Laurents decided to adopt Majid, but the 6-year-old Georges, jealous of the older boy, managed to derail the adoption, and Majid wound up in an orphanage instead. Georges assumes Majid is acting out a sort of retaliation against him in the present day, but the film is careful not to implicate him in the events—the first of several instances in which Haneke undermines a plausible explanation for the story’s ambiguities.
This history—of Georges’s childhood betrayal of Majid— is the central hidden fact of the film, and the process and consequences of its unearthing are what drive the plot forward. We see the personal wreckage, played out in the lives of everyone involved, that follows its slow uncovering. But as the title suggests, forms of hiding abound in Caché, from the small and individual to the larger and political, and Haneke seems interested in exploring each one.
At the start of the film, Georges refers to himself and Anne as “bobos,” or bourgeois-bohemians—rich people posing as poor—as if their identities are based on a sort of cultural camouflage. This tips us off to the idea that a certain kind of hiding, the concealment of economic privilege, is threaded into the social landscape. As the film goes on, we can see the evidence of this ourselves. Georges’ house is comfortable but not fancy, Pierrot’s school is large and anonymous, and Anne appears to do all the household work herself. It’s a much more modest lifestyle than the one in which Georges grew up, and we get the sense that with this generational passage, some of the more visible aspects of wealth and privilege have been pushed underground.
A main historical backdrop is the 1961 Paris massacre, in which the French police drowned unidentified numbers of peaceful demonstrators protesting a curfew imposed on the Algerian-French community. Adding further cruelty, the government refused to acknowledge the event for several decades afterward. Within the film, the massacre sets up a chain of events that lead to its principal secret. There is, then, a sort of Russian nesting doll effect with the massacre at its center: the historical event was a form of political suppression played out as a literal submersion, a hiding of the bodies in the water; it was then followed by a further concealment, the government’s unwillingness to recognize it; and within the film, it’s hidden one more time, under the layers of Georges’ denial.
Narratively, it doesn’t seem incidental that this history is used as a backdrop to the story rather than its main event. A similar concept plays out visually throughout Caché, which is set during the era of the Iraq war. News coverage of the war plays intermittently on the Laurents’ television screen, always in the background, and always switched off when something more immediate comes up. It’s a clear representation of the ways in which certain stories and experiences go largely unseen in mainstream Western culture, buried beneath the dominant social landscape.
But Caché suggests certain secrets ultimately can’t remain hidden—and when they come out, they do so in violent ways. Early in the film, after Georges has begun to connect the dots between the deliveries and the childhood betrayal, he goes to the police. As he exits the station, he is almost knocked down by a passing bicyclist. The cyclist is Black, which feels significant given the broader context. The two men argue and almost come to blows. It’s a moment of unexpected aggression, particularly given how superficially restrained the film is otherwise, and it seems to offer a warning: if you try to suppress a secret, violence will ensue.
And the violence eventually comes. After Majid and his son have been taken into custody by the police, with echoes of his parents’ encounter with the police as well as his own forced transfer to the orphanage, Majid invites Georges over to his apartment and cuts his own throat, spattering a trail of blood across the kitchen wall. The scene plays like a reenactment of the childhood betrayal, in which, prompted by a lie from Georges, Majid cut the head off the Laurent family’s rooster, an act that persuaded the elder Laurents not to adopt him. In both scenes, Georges watches from several feet away as Majid picks up the blade and cuts the throat—first the animal’s and later his own. And in both, although Georges appears helpless and stricken as the blood falls on Majid’s hands, the responsibility is squarely his own. The sound effects even echo each other, a loud thwack followed by a sort of fluttering, the animal’s wings in one scene and Majid’s falling body in the other.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the image of the blood on the kitchen wall, used prominently in the film’s key art, feels like a symbol of the inside coming out, of what’s hidden beneath breaking through the surface and coming into the light of daily life. It connects specifically to the blood from the massacre and from the betrayal. And in this way, this single act of suicide exposes and responds to this series of buried tragedies.
There’s a final, more pervasive way that hiding operates in Caché. Haneke is enacting similar forms of concealment on us as viewers. The cinematic elements that traditionally provide an audience with guidance are downplayed or absent entirely. There’s no score, the soundtrack is practical and spare, and there are times when the mixing levels feel purposefully off, with background noises played at the same volume as the characters talking over them, making it difficult to prioritize information. The camera blends wide exteriors with medium interiors, relying less often on close-ups, and shots tend to linger rather than cut, creating a sense of uncertainty. There’s a flatness to the shooting style as well, a lack of depth within the frame, which fittingly reproduces the quality of surveillance footage, but also leaves the audience without much visual guidance, since we’re forced to scan around for what’s important. All of this combines to create some ambiguity about where to look, what to listen to, and even, in some cases, how to react.
There are also moments when it seems like Haneke is intentionally throwing us off. He continually relocates us without warning or explanation, often within a single shot, using sudden sound cues or a rewind/fast-forward effect to shift us to a different physical space—from out on the street and into the living room. Often a cut to a new shot will reveal that our placement within the previous shot is not at all what we thought. And this ambiguity, this continual undercutting of our sense of location, even of our sense of certainty, feels like intentional trickery, a sort of cinematic shell-game.
No clear explanation is ever given for the tapes, and Haneke makes us wonder long past the final frame. The last shot is a wide view of the outside of Pierrot’s school. We see Pierrot come out, and a moment later, Majid’s son approaches. The two boys talk privately, inaudibly, and then go their separate ways. The shot holds as the end credits begin, and we sense that there must be something important coming, some revelatory final clue. The first time I saw the film, I sat watching throughout the entire end crawl, scanning every pixel, looking for some sort of final resolution. But in the end, Caché resists a definitive reading, and its answers remain just that—hidden.
In The White Ribbon, released four years later, Haneke turns his attention back a century, to a smaller, more secluded community and a different type of hiding. Unlike in Caché, the hiding here is levied from the outside, by societal forces, with repercussions that are consequently that much broader and more insidious. The film is in some ways an exploration of religious extremism—in this case, extreme forms of Protestantism—but it’s less about the specifics of that religion, and more about the ways in which strict morality, an unbending control over all aspects of life in the name of religion, can warp human behavior.
The film is set in the lead-up to World War I in a fictional German village called Eichwald. It is narrated by the local schoolteacher and tells the story of a year in which a series of brutal and mysterious events took place in the village. As the film opens, a doctor is knocked to the ground and injured when his horse catches on a tripwire strung between two trees. Not long after, the wife of a tenant farmer dies after falling through some rotted floorboards in suspicious circumstances. Two children are taken and tortured, first the son of a local baron and later a disabled boy. The tragedies pile up, growing increasingly cruel, and there is no immediate explanation for what has caused them.
The White Ribbon is more traditional aesthetically than Caché. Though there is no formal score and the lighting veers to the darker side, the overall shot structure and sound design have a more classic and tightly choreographed feel. But Haneke still takes steps to unground us, offering a narrator whose reliability is immediately put into question and a disordered on-screen universe in which traditional rules of justice and morality don’t seem to apply.
At the center of this world are the children. They show up just about everywhere, usually in a tight pack, especially when a crime has been committed. And although we never get a firm explanation for the crimes—Haneke continues to keep us guessing—much of the available evidence points toward their guilt. Both Caché and The White Ribbon, then, originate with forms of childhood cruelty. And though we aren’t given any particular explanation for it in Caché, in The White Ribbon, we’re offered some clues.
The village is rife with examples of control, from mild to extreme, but the harshest forms are reserved for the children. Throughout the film, we see them punished, often cruelly and brutally, for the smallest violations, for coming home late or being noisy, even for expressing fear or offering unwanted kindness. In a disturbing scene, the village pastor shames and bullies his preteen son for touching himself and insists that his hands be tied down to his bed at night so he can’t continue to use them. Significantly, he also requires that his children, including the oldest ones, wear the eponymous white ribbons to remind themselves of their childhood purity. Acceptable social behavior, then, seems to require a kind of suppression—of wayward inclinations but also, and perhaps more ominously, of fundamental human nature.
The only joy in the film seems to exist outside the bounds of this village. After her son is mysteriously tortured, the baroness takes him and her other children on a trip to Italy. While there, she meets a man and falls in love, and her children apparently blossom. By way of example, we see her son impulsively hugging a housekeeper on his return, one of the only times we witness this type of spontaneously warm behavior from anyone. Whether this is intended as a comment on Catholic versus Protestant culture is unclear, but the film does seem to be setting up the idea that human impulses and emotions can flourish away from the rigid controls that underpin this village.
Haneke provides us with two main characters who are defined by their outsider status—the narrator/schoolteacher and Eva, the nanny on the baron’s estate. Both are temporary visitors in this place, arriving soon before the start of the film and moving on before its end, and both offer a strong counterpoint to the locals. Physically, they are messier, rounder and softer featured than the other characters, with clothes that hang more loosely and hair that falls frequently into their faces. Their behavior is different too. They are open and direct, they laugh and cry freely, they make mistakes and admit them—and, perhaps most notable of all, they fall in love.
The film lays out a connection between these lovers and the natural world, and in so doing, seems to be making a point about their connectedness to their own personal natures too—as if nature itself is standing in for human nature, and the ability to exist harmoniously with one suggests an ability to embrace the other. The first time we see the schoolteacher, he is fishing in a stream in the woods, barefoot with his jacket off and vest undone, hoping to catch some dinner. Birds chirp loudly, water flows, and the sun shines down between the trees. It’s a sort of rural idyll, and he seems very much at home. When he goes to meet Eva’s family at Christmas, we find an informal, cluttered house, with a wispy tree inside, and branches and pinecones laid out on a table in the foreground. In a later courtship scene, we find the two taking a leisurely carriage ride through a sun-dappled field, tall grass flowing freely in the foreground and a line of thick forest beyond, again accompanied by a soundtrack of loudly chirping birds.
As Haneke goes about establishing a link between the lovers and the natural world, he also threads in the idea that the villagers interact with nature mainly by trying to dominate it. In the first shot of the film, we see the village doctor coming home from his dressage lesson at the baron’s estate. Dressage differs from other forms of equestrianism in terms of its severity and involves the rigorous—some would say inhumane—disciplining of a horse in order to achieve mastery over it. It’s a passing detail but feels significant, especially given its placement in the opening narration.
More pivotally, the pastor keeps a caged bird in his office, and this becomes a main metaphor. Partway through the story, his youngest son brings home an injured wild bird and asks if he can keep it as a pet. The pastor warns him that a wild bird won’t live in a cage—only birds raised in captivity will allow themselves to remain that way (a concept the pastor is all too familiar with). In a later scene, his oldest daughter, following an episode in which he mercilessly shames her for being loud, sneaks into the office, removes the bird from its cage and impales it with a pair of desk scissors. There seem to be two ideas at play here: first, that life in such a cage is not worth living; and second, and more forebodingly, that having your nature so thoroughly restrained can drive a person to commit acts of violence.
At the start of The White Ribbon, speaking from many decades on, the narrator says he wants to describe the events in the village in case they might help to “clarify some things that happened in this country,” presumably referring to World War II. This generation of children would have reached adulthood soon before that war, and the narrator apparently believes that something in their story, in the unfolding of their lives, could have set the stage for the later events. If we take this to be true, then Haneke seems to be picking up right where he left off in Caché: if the suppression of an individual secret can provoke a single act of violence, then the widespread suppression of human nature, the secreting of an entire population’s most basic human drives, might, he suggests, incite acts of violence on a vast and horrifying scale.
Haneke’s films make for strange viewing during a time of global uncertainty and tragic loss. They are dark and challenging, even punishing at times, and tend to highlight the ugliness and suffering in the world rather than providing relief—they are decidedly not escapist cinema. But as bleak as they can be, there are also moments of real loveliness to be found in them.
Majid and the two lovers serve as foils to the cultures and characters that surround them, as if they grew from a different soil. They spark our emotions and draw our sympathy in ways the other characters rarely do. In The White Ribbon, the scene with the lovers on their carriage ride plays out in a single, uninterrupted shot, the longest, most spontaneous in the film, and as we watch their faces register reactions from fear to bewilderment to giddiness to joy, it’s hard not to hang on their expressions, to smile when they smile too. In Caché, Majid is a character who has been through every kind of personal tragedy and yet remains steadily generous, gentle and human. After Georges first accuses him, we watch him alone in his kitchen, grieving and crying freely. And in a heartbreaking moment, he even offers Georges a seat at his kitchen table before slitting his own throat.
In these films, it’s the cruelty that sits on the surface. We don’t need to look far to see it. The humanity becomes a sort of secret, hiding almost beyond our view and emerging in brief, uncharacteristic moments. It stands apart from everything else and appears, when it does, like a bright spot against the dark, a sort of giddy relief.
Some secrets Haneke keeps. Others are there for the taking.
In interviews, Haneke has indicated that the film was shot in color and transferred to black-and-white during post-production.