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March 6, 2021

The past, blurrier than the future

In a novel initiative, the German Cultural Center in Cluj has proposed to the public the theme of reinterpreting the past through the means of cinema. The focus was placed on the phenomenon of national-socialism, seen however from historical contexts other than its own – from the period that followed but also from the one that preceded it. A trial in absentia in other words. Through the eyes of children. Of those that were children back then, and who then grew up in an age in which the “German guilt” was rather hidden away only for it to eventually burst out in a traumatic fashion (and to stress the generational cleavages). But also through the eyes of the children that were about to become the fans of national-socialism.
We are talking in this case about “The White Ribbon”, the masterpiece of Michael Haneke. Around World War I, in a German village a succession of crimes and unusual attacks remains unsolved.

The patriarchal atmosphere is dominated by physical punishment, hidden abuses and tacit agreements. An extremely repressive but at the same time extremely permissive society that tolerates crime and abuse as intangible diabolical actions lost in the fog of mystery. It’s interesting that the director’s choice of black-and-white picture does not hide an expressionist taste for the aesthetics of contrast, but symbolically potentiates a luminous oversaturation. The excess of “white,” psychologically materialized in the obsession of purity, in fact generates a solely suspected – because it is invisible – parallel universe of “black holes.” The hypocrisy associated with the utopia of a “pure” society is more efficient than any alibi, making the crimes prosper without the risk of being elucidated and punished. Haneke suggests a subtle distortion, guilty for the malfunction of a whole system. “The white ribbon” is destined, in the strict pedagogy of the village’s shepherd – symbol of spiritual authority – to crowning following a victory in the fight against sin. For example, dominating the infantile impulse to masturbate. An entire moral civilization hides behind this attitude. It’s not about integrating the various psychological tendencies in a pretentious art of hammering personalities, on the contrary, it’s about the reductionism of a continuous purification, of an always resumed rediscovery of innocence. In other words, a disastrous cult of innocence. Which becomes pedagogy of violence, because children end up practicing it too, by abusing those more vulnerable than them. Moreover, such pedagogy is hypocritical, being rather a pretext for the impulses of domination and sadism. The film does not seek so much to remind us that children can be as mean as adults, but instead how decisive the pedagogical option of a civilization can be (apart from each family’s variety of methods), that dominating ideal in a certain age and in a center country, which contextualizes the eternal aspiration of human amelioration.
If the Romanian Culture Institute were to propose organizing the viewing of a series of Romanian films with historical themes, would that be a credible initiative? Rather not, for the simple reason that historical films are not exactly the strong point of Romanian cinema. And not because plenty of such films were not made, starting with the first, from the distant 1912, namely “Independenta Romaniei” (The Independence of Romania), whose filming was covered in another film almost a century later – Nae Caranfil’s “The Rest is Silence.” It can even be said that historical films were privileged during Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime, being part of the main resources of his cultural policies. Let us recall, it was the age of communist nationalism (so refreshing following the Russification of the last two decades) in which Ceausescu was the successor of the people’s princes and heroes. An age in which film Director Sergiu Nicolaescu, after all one of the regime’s main cultural protagonists, prospered. His cinematographic views were a poisoned gift for the millions of viewers, which on one hand ended up familiarizing themselves with national history as their predecessors had not had the chance to, but on the other hand assimilated (unknowingly) often mystified historic reconstructions. Reconstructions destined to strengthen a national heroic mythology, meant to mollify critical thinking in relation to historic responsibilities.
After 1989, with the exception of the same Sergiu Nicolaescu (in an already more senile version), few dared to venture on the market of historical films (partly also because of the lack of resources, this genre being more pretentious in what concerns locations, scripts and costumes). The Romanian “new wave” on the other hand staked on minimalism and contemporary dramas, and retrospective questioning was limited to the recent past. In fact, the world of cinema could not succeed where historiography failed. Most historiographic polemics are of such character that the picture is still excessively unclear. In this case also, the communist era gave poisoned fruits, because historiography often distorted even more the perspective on controversial phenomena. Starting this year, the World War I centenary will occasion new debates, but the risk is that of perpetuating the use of selective grids in historiographic perception. Fortunately, the Romanian world of cinema has a first meritorious accomplishment from this point of view, “Padurea spanzuratilor” (‘Forest of the hanged’) the movie for which Liviu Ciulei won the directing award at Cannes in 1965. But why aren’t there remarkable films about the right-wing extremism that marked the interwar period, films that would not resort to caricature but would actually offer keys of interpretation useful for historians too? Mircea Daneliuc’s “Glissando” appeared in 1984 (a kind of Romanian pendant to Bergman’s “The Serpent’s Egg”), featuring a crepuscular character that survives in a world in which depravation secretes authoritarianism. But the director’s stake seems to be rather Ceausescu’s belated communism rather than the interwar period in which the action is set. After all, significant films were not made about communism either in the last quarter of a century. So that the best film about that period remains Lucian Pintilie’s “Reconstituirea” (“Reconstruction”), made in 1968 and practically banned after a short period (Ceausescu himself, a self-declared movie fan like Stalin, publicly criticized it). The story is simple: a group of state authority representatives (a prosecutor, a teacher, a master sergeant and a cameraman) force two youngsters to take part in the reconstruction of a commonplace brawl as part of an educational film about the nefarious consequences of alcoholism. It is the very parable of communist “justice.”
Nobody in fact takes the responsibility of punishing. The ambiguous educational goal is solely a pretext in order to induce fratricidal aggressiveness. The final drama, lengthily kindled, is nothing but a self-destruction of some characters whose guilt remains vague. It’s like in a gladiator fight that takes place under the hysterical egging on of irresponsible spectators. It’s not by chance that as the events progress shouts from a nearby football stadium are heard intermittently, collective but anonymous, faceless howls. Justice is replaced with propaganda. People become the characters of generalized mystification, taking part in tragic denouements without knowing their real causes. When the football game finishes and the fans appear at the location of the “reconstruction” they are witness to nothing but a real brawl, which they disapprove of, blaming its protagonists and ignoring the role of the “film directors.” “Popular” justice, anonymous and without laws, is nothing but an immense mise-en-scene of propagandistically staged dramas. Why, in the context of democratic freedom, was it not possible to make a film that would have risen at least to the level of the 1968 one?

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