“The White Ribbon” - Michael Haneke (2009)

The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band, 2009), by Austrian write-director Michael Haneke, has drawn extraordinarily favorable responses from the critical community, including the Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or, an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and Best Picture awards from the Golden Globes, FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics), and the European Film Awards. In fact the film seems almost to be targeted at the critical, art-house community: it is an austere and dour account of obscure goings on in a German village during 1913-14 that ends without any apparent resolution. But my view on the film is that despite its critical popularity, the film has significant weaknesses – so much so that I wonder if it wouldn't almost serve as something of a litmus test for real cinematic sensibility.

The story of the The White Ribbon begins with a voiceover narrator stating that he will be recounting some mysterious and still not-fully-explained events that took place many years ago in Eichwald, a small, rural village in the northern part of Germany. The first such event occurs when the village doctor returns home on horseback and is thrown from his horse and seriously injured by a trip wire that has been strung between trees hear his house. The doctor suffers a broken arm and is hospitalized for several months, but noone can identify the perpetrator of this vicious act. Later the wife of a peasant farm worker is killed in an accident at the local sawmill. Soon thereafter the baron’s local cabbage garden is vandalized, apparently in retaliation for the negligence that led to the woman’s death. Again, the perpetrator is not immediately found.

Without clear, upfront exposition, the viewer only gradually learns about the town. Eichwald is a farm village, with most of the population working on the agricultural estate of the local baron. The narrator is the village schoolteacher. Since there are suspicions that delinquent children may have been behind the delinquent act, the viewer will naturally look closely at the numerous children that are shown in the village, and it is initially difficult to distinguish to what families they all belong. After awhile, though, the viewer can begin to identify many of the children with a few principal families headed by prominent male figures in the community:
  • The baron, who has a young boy, Sigi, of about ten years of age
  • The steward at the estate, who has some teenage sons.
  • The local pastor of the Protestant church, who has a number of children, the two oldest of whom, Klara and Martin, he severely disciplines.
  • The doctor, who is widowed. He has several children, who are looked after by a housekeeper/midwife who has a couple of children of her own.
  • The farmer whose wife dies in the accident. He has a number of children, some of whom are almost grown up and work with him on the plantation.
In due course more ghastly events occur. A baby almost dies of pneumonia after its bedroom window was opened by someone during an icy winter’s night. The baron’s son, Siqi, is found in a forest, hanging upside down from a tree and having been tortured. The retarded son of the doctor’s midwife is found in the forest, also tortured and possibly blinded. The riddle as to who is behind these abuses is unsolved. Although the older son of the newly widowed farmer is found to have vandalized the baron’s cabbage garden, that boy is provably innocent of the other charges. The schoolteacher begins to have suspicions about the pastor’s children, Klara and Martin, but his investigations are angrily blocked by threats from the pastor and come to nothing. At the end of the film, all these concerns are disrupted by the advent of World War I. The schoolteacher goes off to serve in the war, moves away from the village, and never again knows anything further about the town or its people.

The presumption that is left with the viewer at the end of the film is that the identities of the specific criminals in the village do not really matter. There was something poisonous in the town of Eichwald that was endemic to the entire society. That degenerate social culture was responsible for producing the criminals of those specific crimes in Eichwald, and, by implication, supposedly responsible for the rise of German fascism in the coming years. Thus Haneke’s film has been hailed by critics as a profound indictment of the German mores and social customs that are supposedly responsible for the Nazis. Does this thesis hold water, and does the film provide convincing evidence for it? I would say, emphatically no on both counts.

For a film of this nature, we might consider three categories for critical judgment: its narrative structure, its cinematic production values, and its overriding themes. The White Ribbon has been extravagantly praised by critics along all three lines, but in my view the film clearly fails in all three areas. Consider the three, admittedly overlapping, categories, in their turn.

Narrative Structure.
The film is initially presented as a mystery: what is behind the disturbing events in Eichwald? Since various fragmented episodes about the village are presented, the viewer is set the task of resolving the puzzle. One obvious puzzle concerns the original motivation for this storytelling. But given the aged timbre of the narrator’s voice and the revealed age of the schoolteacher in the film (31), one can guess that the narrator is reflecting on events that have happened at least thirty years earlier. When the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Sarajevo is mentioned in the story, one can pinpoint the year, 1914. So the narrator is apparently telling the story in order to reflect on how events more than thirty years earlier may give some clue to the “present” circumstances of German society, which would be in the immediate aftermath of World War II. However, the story is not presented as a true critical reflection, but as a set of fragmented data items, facts, if you will, which the viewer must piece together in order to understand what really happened and why. This can keep the viewer guesssing and busy figuring out what is going on – for example, identifying which children belong to which family. But this is a “bottom-up” approach. The viewer is engaged in an analytic enterprise, assembling supposedly objective information in order to ascertain the truth.

Unfortunately, though, the director, Haneke, does not play fair with the audience. Instead of restricting the focalization of the narrative to that of the schoolteacher narrator, there are numerous distinc focalizations depicted in the story to which the schoolteacher could not have been privy. The things that Hanake does present are obscured and partially occluded, not because of the limited perspective of some particular focalized observer, but simply because Hanake is playing games and doesn’t want the viewer, even from the “omniscient” perspective, to know more and have things too easy.

The mysterious crimes are never resolved in the film. The personal characters of the principal children are never really revealed, and we never have a clue to their motivations. The film has six major male characters (baron, doctor, steward, pastor, farmer, schoolteacher), but there is no real character development in any of these roles, except for the schoolteacher in the background, with his slight suspicions towards the end.

All in all, the narrative is presented as a scrapbook that has been artificially fragmented in order to make things more challenging for the viewer. But this scrapbook is certainly not, and could not possibly be, the narrative focus of the schoolteacher. Instead, it is an artificial mystery assembled by the director for the viewer to solve. And then at the end of the story, the puzzle is dropped as an issue, thereby undercutting the principal metaphor that had driven the film throughout.

Cinematic production values.
The film is shot in black-and-white and evidently photographed to have a distancing, historical feel to it, with high-key lighting in the exteriors and low-key lighting in the interiors. The camera work, itself, is well executed, technically, but there is no consistency to it. I remember a film director whose previous background was in writing relating to me about his first experience as a director with a professional film crew. He was dumbfounded on the day of his first shoot when the cinematographer approached him for the first scene and asked, “where shall I put the camera?” It hadn’t occurred to the debuting director that it is normally the director who decides where to station the camera to film a scene. That was the lesson: the director had better have an idea where to put the camera. In this film there is no indication that Haneke has any real idea of where to station it.

The film has many camera framings in long shot, which do collectively support the distancing effect. But then the camera framings randomly switch to intense closeups of some of the characters for no apparent reason. It is not as though those particular shots of intense closeups have any apparent motivation or narrative significance to the story. On top of that, various camera stunts are tried that have an pointlessly disruptive effect, such as
  • 360-degree camera movements around the schoolteacher while he is dancing with his lady friend, Eva;
  • the face-up camera shot of the teacher and Eva sitting in the carriage as it careens around the countryside;
  • the jostling, moving camera shot as it tracks closely behind the vandal who ravages the barons cabbage garden. That close, intense tracking shot is completely inconsistent with the visual tone of the rest of the film.
At other times there are meaningless framings, as mentioned above, in interior hallways, with long-held static compositions that are pointless. When Hou Hsaio-Hsien uses such static compositions in his films, he achieves by means of them a somewhat haunting narrative consistency. This is not the case with Haneke here, where the framings appear merely to be arranged in order to disadvantage the viewer and keep things in concealment. But keeping the viewer in the dark is merely artificial inscrutability – not narrative doubt and expectation that is achieved through plot developments.

The acting in the film, which has also been highly praised, is theatrically deliberate, but lacking in subtlety. There are no real interactive moments among the characters that have meaningful impact. The principal characters are all wooden stereotypes who are locked inside their own schemas. The lone exception to these performances is confined to the halting and bashful first encounter and then courtship between the schoolteacher and Eva, the baron’s sometime governess. Although there is little progression or narrative significance to these meetings, they are the only encounters in the film that bear some humanity, and so the viewer finds them a welcome relief from all the other dreary goings-on.

The theme of the film is evidently that the traditional German society of that period was degenerate and gave rise to Nazism, but there is no real depth to this characterization. Aside from the schoolteacher, the principal men of the village are little more than monsters: selfish, proud, dogmatic, brutal, and even cruel.
  • the baron is proud, insensitive, and demanding.
  • the steward is explosively bad-tempered when irritated.
  • the doctor is basically a sexual deviant and is inhumanly cruel to his mistress, the housekeeper.
  • the pastor is a pompous and fanatic distributor of Biblical justice to his children.
  • the farmer is an honest man, but has been brutalized by his impoverished circumstances, and so brutalizes his sons, in turn.
The only real human being who gets much camera time is the schoolteacher (the baroness would be another one if she had been given a greater role). The others are all authoritarian cardboard characters.

With such simplistic characterizations how is it possible to provide a meaningful view of German society? No wonder some film critics imbue the thematic content of the film with some of their own intuitions. Betsy Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times feels that the film propounds the notion that Nazis were created by child neglect, brutality, and denial. The children were, according to Sharkey, neglected by their pompous, simple-minded parents and consequently grew up to be thugs who launched German fascism. Meanwhile Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times felt that the film demonstrates how societies like Germany overreact to minor incidents (recall that the village was in panic over the crimes) and consequently develop a police-state mentality. One critics sees apathetic neglect, and another sees overreacting authoritarianism. This is what happens when the characterizations are so simplistic that one has to read into the film one’s own presumptions about German history.

There are indeed many effective films, such as Fellini’s I Vitelloni, that describe brutish, narrow-mindedness of small towns and rural areas, and the narrative journey on the part of the protagonist to move beyond those parochial environs. There are other stories that have a compelling vision of the depths of human depravity in backward areas, such as Jerzy Kosin'ski’s The Painted Bird. But The White Ribbon has no such narrative journey for the protagonist nor a compelling or revelatory vision of the society. The circumstances it describes are simply cold, repugnant, and oppressive. There is no conflicting counterforce that can provide narrative movement in The White Ribbon – merely a bunch unmotivated, half-comatose children living in oppressive social surroundings and possibly engaged in delinquent activities. The viewer is kept at a distance apparently in order to make the story more mysterious. Those who see profundity in a film like this are, to me, not probably responding aesthetically to great cinematic storytelling, but have simply used its empty spaces to invest the film with their own intellectual fantasies.

“Il Grido” - Michelangelo Antonioni (1957)

Il Grido (The Outcry, 1957), Michelangelo Antonioni’s fifth feature film, was something of a departure from most of his offerings, because of the social milieu depicted in the film. By and large, Antonioni’s films were usually situated in and concerned with relatively privileged social groupings. The people in such more advantaged social strata had the means to look beyond the immediate concerns of their present circumstances and grapple with the question of what they really wanted out of life. But Il Grido was more in tune with the the contemporary Italian Neorealist subject matter of that time and was concerned with working-class people struggling to make their way in the modern industrial world. But notwithstanding whatever implicit social themes may be lurking in Il Grido, the real focus even in this film is still concerned with Antonioni’s fundamentally existentialistic motif about what one ultimately seeks out of life and whether the longed-for satisfaction is even attainable.

The story of Il Grido is about an industrial mechanic, Aldo, and the events in his life after his seven-year affair with a married woman comes to an end at the beginning of the film. The narrative can be partitioned into sections that are associated with the women with whom he is intimately involved at various stages of the story. Each narrative segment outlines a further step lower in the ladder of Aldo’s decline.
  1. The Breakup with Irma (23 minutes). At the outset a process of slow disclosure informs the viewer that the husband of a woman, Irma, has just died in Australia. In the husband’s long absence Irma has been living with another man, Aldo, for the past seven years, and they have a young six-year-old daughter, Rosina. When Aldo later learns about the death of Irma’s husband, his hopes that he and Irma can now finally be legally married are crushed by Irma’s announcement that she is leaving him for another man whom she has recently met. The heartbroken Aldo is a typical working-class male, taciturn and tough, a person with few sources of counsel or solace. When he talks to his mother, she simply scolds him for having lived with a married woman for so many years and tells him that everything is his own fault. He tries earnestly to dissuade Irma from splitting up with him, but she is adamant. Frustrated by his powerlessness to change things, Aldo tries to assert his manly authority by roughing her up in public and slapping her around, which of course only seals the deal of their breakup. With his life crushed in the local company town near Ferrara, Aldo absconds with his daughter, Rosina, and takes to the road.
  2. Elvia (21 minutes). Aldo and his daughter now visit a past flame, Elvia, whom he had abandoned for Irma. Elvia, played by American actress Betsy Blair in a reprise of her Oscar-nominated role of Clara in Marty (1955), is a modest, homespun woman who is still enthralled with Aldo and is still available. Aldo spends some time with her going dancing and attending speedboat races, and he tentatively succumbs to the restoration of their old relationship. But when Irma, looking for Rosina, traces Aldo’s steps and shows up at Evia's door, Elvia is hurt to learn that she has only caught Aldo on the rebound after being dumped by another woman, and she confronts Aldo about it. Further souring things, Aldo finds himself distracted and aroused by Elvia’s now-grown-up and luscious younger sister, Edera. Realizing that this situation with Elvia isn’t going to be an answer for him and that he doesn’t really love Elvia, Aldo leaves early in the morning the next day with Rosina in tow, without saying good-bye.
  3. Virginia (36 minutes). On the road again and hitching rides on oil trucks, Aldo stops to stay for a bit at a roadside gas station run by a young widow, in what is the most compelling and magnetic sequence in the film. The widow Virginia is assertive and self-reliant, not to mention sensual and voluptuous. She gives Aldo all sorts of come-hither signs, and finally practically seduces him. But ultimately, Virginia wants total involvement, and she demands a commitment that Aldo is not really ready to give. Determinedly, she places her alcoholic and increasingly senile father into a government-run rest home and then demands that Aldo do similarly and send Rosina away so that they can have some time for themselves. Aldo assents and does reluctantly put Rosina (about whom he really does care) on a bus back to Irma, but the whole thing depresses him, and he finally decides that Virginia is not going to be the answer, either. He hits the road again.
  4. Adreina (20 minutes). Walking alone along the road, Aldo spies a Po River fishing dredger and signs on as a mechanic. He finds quarters in a desolate thatched shack by the river, and soon he hooks up with a pretty prostitute, Adreina. Adreina likes him, too, but she wants him to have more get-up-and go. She’s a woman who has had to live by her wits, and she complains that he is too passive. Aldo can’t imagine a long-term life with Adreina, either, and once more takes off.
  5. Finale (16 minutes). Time has passed, at least a year, and Aldo is still a drifter, hitching rides on the back of truck beds. He happens to pass by Virginia’s gas station and learns that Irma had sent a postcard there awhile ago. Still fixated on Irma and Rosina, he heads back to Ferrara, which is in the middle of union action protesting plans to demolish the sugar refinery and build a military base on the site. In the midst of this turmoil, Aldo wanders past Irma’s lodgings and sees through a window that Irma now has a new baby. Then he walks over to the refinery tower where he used to work and climbs to the top. Irma, having spied him through the window, rushes out after him. When she calls up to him at the top of the tower, Aldo falls to his death.
The basically pessimistic theme of Il Grido concerns the pervasive disconnect between people, specifically their failure to communicate on an authentic level and achieve some sort of personal fulfillment. This would be a theme that Antonioni would continue to explore with visual eloquence in his subsequent work. In particular over the course of his next three films, Atonioni would continue to ponder the apparently inevitable impermanence of man-woman relationships.

Antonioni’s characteristic and celebrated mise-en-scène invariably emphasizes the physical architecture of an environmental space in which the characters interact. In this film that space is the bleak landscape of the Po River region around Ferrara in northern Italy where Antonioni grew up. There are numerous evocative panning and tracking shots in the film, but not so many complicated and choreographed moving-camera shots that would characterize some of his later masterpieces. Altogether the cinematography here gives rise to a feeling of loneliness and isolation that pervades the atmosphere of the film. On top of that, the piano-based musical score further accentuates the interior loneliness of the landscape settings. Moreover, the sense of loneliness is further enhanced by the conventional dubbing scheme employed, which lends something an interior feeling to the dialogue. The dubbing also undoubtedly helped incorporate American actors Steve Cochran (as Aldo) and Betsy Blair (as Elvia) into the shooting, but dubbing was a standard feature for Continental films with multilingual destinations then – even Italian Dorian Gray (as Virginia) had her voice dubbed by later Antonioni favorite Monica Vitti.

In terms of visual styles, it is interesting to compare Il Grido with Federico Fellini’s masterful La Strada (1954). Both films depict relatively inarticulate, brutish itinerant working-class characters, Zampanò and Aldo, who travel about the Italian countryside. Both Zampanò and Aldo are frustrated and unable even to articulate what it is that they really want. But there is a difference in the key man-woman relationships depicted in the two films. The object of Aldo’s obsession in Il Grido, Irma, and the issue of why she is so treasured, are only alluded to and presented at the fringes. Aldo’s overriding, core passion is left relatively unexamined. This contrasts with, and consequently compares unfavorably with, La Strada, where the key relationship between Zampanò and Gelsomina is developed to the point where the viewer understands the nature of it much better than Zampanò does.

There are two seemingly random remarks that Aldo makes during the course of Il Grido that are keys to understanding the nature of his funk – his psychological depression that he cannot seem to straighten out. One of those key commentaries is when he mentions that he used to like to look down from the top of the refinery tower and survey his work area and the surrounding town. He could even see his own dwelling from that height. Everything was laid out for him in an organized, well-structured manner in those days. But after he lost Irma, he lost his bearings. At the end of the film, he again climbs the refinery tower (which will soon be demolished) perhaps to try and recover that feeling of orientation. This time, though, the surroundings are in chaos, with the local population rioting, and there is no compass to help establish order out of the disarray of his world. Under these circumstances in that last scene, Aldo can’t help but feel dizzy: the tower no longer provides the mental scaffolding that he seeks for clarity.

Another of the key remarks of Aldo in the film is when he reflectively remembers the time when he first met Irma. Long ago a group of his friends had once come together to go out to a dance hall, but one of them, Irma, said that she would prefer to go to the museum, instead. So he went with her to the museum. This was the beginning of their relationship, and it reveals that Aldo, who was clearly not an intellectual, was still a person who wanted a deeper and more personally intimate relationship with a woman. This is what he thought he had with Irma, but she had eventually drifted away from him over the years and had found someone else that pleased her more.

If one were to look for an underlying sociopolitical theme to the tale of Il Grido, beyond the level of personal interaction, one might claim there is a suggestion in the film that postwar modernism was progressively removing conventional modes of authentic interaction for working class people, and thereby was disempowering them, and thus for men in particular, was emasculating them. Throughout the film there are images of the bleak and barren Po River landscape that has little of green nature – mostly we see images of inhuman mechanical operation, such as the refinery tower, speedboats, the gas station, trucks, motorbikes, and the like. Aldo, the mechanic, has become used to dealing with inanimate, mechanically-driven devices, but what is lacking and what he needs is personal, human interaction, and he doesn’t know how to achieve this. Stuck in this quandary, Aldo’s personal evolution is progressively towards stupefaction, inaction, immobility. At one point he mentions to Virginia that he fundamentally lacks “willingness” – he is powerless. His only real assertive actions are pointless and self-destructive physical beatings of his women and his child Rosina. The very final shot of the film is an overhead pan looking down from the refinery tower – first from a frame of the mass of workers running down the street in protest and then panning over to a closing frame of Irma kneeling over Aldo’s dead body. This provides a thematic linkage between the dehumanizing sociopolitical effects of modernism and the personal tragedies to which that dehumanizing gives rise. These themes would be picked up again in his later films, particularly Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso, 1964) .

The four principal women, on the other hand, are not passive; they are all looking to hook up with a man of action, and they are trying, in their various ways, to assert themselves and take action. But there is a gradation to these women whom Aldo meets, and this gradation provides a narrative progression to Aldo’s decline. Each woman is a willing and eager partner, but each is successively more assertive and potentially more demanding over the long term.
  • Irma is apparently the woman who offered, at least in the past, the richest interaction. But she is the most self-contained: she needs him the least, and she offers him the least support.
  • Elvia is thoughtful and supportive, but there is apparently a reduction in depth in connection with a possible long-term relationship. Unlike Irma, Elvia likes to go dancing, not to the museum. And she needs Aldo emotionally, possibly suggesting that she takes more than she gives.
  • Virginia, the former farm housewife, is more active, but perhaps her lower class status represents a further decline in the potential depth of a relationship. Their relationship is very physical and apparently not as deep as with the previous two women, so a fulfilling long-term intimacy may have had dubious prospects.
  • Adreina is open, spunky, and the most assertive of all of them, but she is also at the lowest level of society. Their relationship is basically sexual, rather than romantic, but these are the terms by which she is accustomed to operating as a business. By necessity, she has had to learn to sees things in terms of her material survival first.
Thus each woman represents a stage in a progression. Although the primary focalization of the film is on Aldo, as we enter into each of the narrative segments the focalization starts to drift over to the principal woman involved, sometimes exclusively looking at things from her perspective. Each woman represents a further step away from the ethereal to the physical. To my mind, each of the women he meets is successively more attractive physically, although Aldo was looking for a relationship on another level and treasured Irma the most.

But as the film progresses, Aldo’s aimlessness and lack of willingness becomes catastrophic. At the very end of the film, he doesn’t jump from the tower to commit suicide. Instead he has lost even the willingness to keep himself from falling. He passively succumbs to the vertigo and lets himself fall. His powerlessness has paralyzed his ability to act – even to save his own life.

“The Southerner” - Jean Renoir (1945)

Despite the brilliant artistic success of Jean Renoir’s films of the late 1930s, including La Grande Illusion (1937), La Bête Humaine (1938), and The Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu, 1939), unforeseen events at that time conspired to derail his momentum. The Rules of the Game was a financial disaster, and the advent of World War II led to Renoir’s migration to the United States in 1941, where he began directing films in Hollywood. There he had to adapt his style to the commercial studio production system of Hollywood, which did not exactly mesh well with Renoir’s improvisational manner of filmmaking and his multi-layered, humanistic aesthetics. His third feature film in Hollywood, The Southerner (1945), was perhaps his best work during this period in America, and it earned Renoir an Oscar nomination for Best Director.

The story of The Southerner follows the course of a year in the life of a married couple, Sam and Nona Tucker, working in the southern US (Texan) cotton fields. Initially Sam and Nona are working as farmhands on a large farm enterprise, but after Sam’s uncle dies of a stroke, he decides to follow his uncle’s last words and try his luck at running his own farm. The story follows Sam’s fortunes as he sets out on his course as an independent operator. The plot offers a curious mixture of conventional Hollywood techniques and Renoir’s personal touches. For one thing, it follows more or less the classic Hollywood “mythic” narrative structure [1]:
  1. Call to action
  2. Encounter with allies and opponents
  3. First crisis
  4. Second crisis
  5. Calm and false sense of security
  6. Final crisis
  7. Final resolution
In the case here, things start out with Sam leasing some land that noone else wants, and he then faces the problem of clearing it, planting it, and attending to his family – a wife, two children, and an unbearably querulous grandmother.

Upon acquiring the land, Sam learns that the water well on his land is ruined, and he will have to seek water from the unfriendly neighboring farmer, Devers, who turns out to be so churlish and close-fisted that we know he will be a future enemy. Then when winter comes and before Sam has made any returns, he has to try and support his family by hunting and trapping in the semi-barren brush. And then after a winter of eating only meat, his young son comes down with a life-threatening case of pellagra, the necessary treatment of which requires a sufficient diet of milk and vegetables. Again Sam approaches Devers, this time for milk, but is scornfully turned away. This crisis is overcome, though, not by overcoming Devers, but by a providential gift: a local merchant, Harmie, who has been courting Sam’s widowed mother, provides a milk cow for the Tucker family.

With Sam and Nona hard at work doing the spring planting, things seem to going well, but the jealous Devers spitefully sabotages the Tucker’s vegetable garden in order to set his neighbors back. With his fists and a little cunning Sam manages to overcome this problem, too, and with a good cotton crop coming in and his mother’s raucous wedding to Harmie taking place, everything finally seems to be joyous. But just then the storm clouds literally appear (signaling the “final crisis”), and a torrential downpour ruinously devastates Sam’s farm and farmhouse. Sam surveys the havoc after all his hard work and is finally ready to throw in the towel and give up. He has finally been defeated. But his humanist instincts prevail when he sees the family cow about to drown in the flood created by the downpour, and he rushes out to rescue it. When he returns home, he sees that Nona is industriously trying to patch things up at the homestead. Sam’s defeatism is turned around by this vision of enthusiastic support, which is the film’s high point, and the story closes on a note of optimism as the Tuckers resolve to continue their venture with their usual optimistic spirits.

Overall, the coupling of Renoir’s mise-en-scene and Hollywood’s theatrics work out well, but not everywhere. The background music by Werner Janssen, which I suppose was quite in keeping with the conventions of the time, is obnoxiously intrusive and noisy when encountered today. One feels that it would be better if that ghetto-blaster-of-a-soundtrack could be eliminated entirely (incredibly, this clamorous musical score actually received an Oscar nomination in 1945). In addition there are some awkward character stereotypes that interfere with the generally humanistic themes of the story. The character of Granny Tucker, played by Beulah Bondi, is cartoonishly grumpy and annoyingly over-the-top. Presumably she has been installed in the story for comic relief, but she hogs the screen with her rancorous pouting and is just too much of a distraction. Another cardboard character that is exaggerated to histrionics is Devers’ nephew and stooge, Finlay, played by Norman Lloyd. More successful in the comic-relief category, on the other hand, is Percy Kilbride, as the merchant Harmie. He fits in rather smoothly in the background, more in the manner of Renoir’s character actors in his earlier French classics, such as Grand Illusion.

On the upside, it must be said that the performance of J. Carrol Naish, as the mean-spirited neighbor Devers, has a rustic, hard-bitten grit that comes across as earthy and realistic. In just a few strokes, he paints a picture of the unsentimental rural society in which Sam Tucker must operate. Even better are the performances of the two leads, Zachary Scott, as Sam, and Betty Fields, as Nona. Scott was coming off his showy debut performance as the sinister villain in one of the all-time great films noir, The Mask of Dimitrios (1944). Here his native East Texan accent and style made him the perfect choice to play the earnest sharecropper, Sam Tucker. When The Southerner was released there were complaints that the European Renoir didn’t understand the nuances of the American South and that the film was unrealistic. These criticisms were besides the point, because the film was not intended for hard-core realism, and there were larger themes at issue. Nevertheless, Scott’s Texan drawl and emphatic gestures supply a generally convincing tone to the film. Fields’s performance was just as important. An accomplished stage actress who frequently appeared on Broadway, Fields gives the conjugal relationship between Nona and Sam the critical vitality that sustains the overall narrative.

The mise-en-scene and camera work does not have the intricate tracking shots that stand out in Renoir’s late-1930s French films, but there are some effective sequences nonetheless. On this occasion Renoir fashions a film featuring considerable atmospheric outdoor landscape footage that contributes to the film’s principal theme of reverence for the land.
  • With his in-depth and well-composed linear tracking shots of the plowing and planting, Renoir effectively evokes the importance of the soil and the earth to the farmers.
  • Sam’s dogged hunt for the possum in the winter is evocatively filmed, and it makes very effective use of edited shot separation to convey what would have been difficult to encompass into unified camera shots.
  • Both the rainstorm sequence and the subsequent desperate search by Sam and his cousin for the family cow through the flooded landscape evoke the degree to which the farmers are always prey to the unpredictable forces of nature.
Besides the story following the particular fate of the Tucker family, there are larger themes considered in the film. Renoir, with his European leftist background, would be expected to show sympathy for the plight of the working class, although in this story Sam Tucker’s quest is actually entrepreneurial: he seeks to be his own boss and achieve some financial success. Nevertheless the film celebrates the rewards that come from working with “your own two hands”. In this connection Sam has a brief philosophical discussion with his cousin about the relative merits and experiences of working in the respective agricultural and industrial economies. On top of all this, of course, there is Renoir’s characteristically nuanced humanism. Everyone in the film is relatively sympathetically viewed and part of a bigger picture: they are all subject to the storms of fate, but they share a common brotherhood in the end.

Looking at both the action and relationship threads of the narrative, it becomes evident that the relationship thread is what really makes the film. This is the focus and what the film is all about. Renoir adapted a written story taken from a contemporary novel and fashioned it into a moving love story that is told visually and beyond what words can express. And the telling has a continental European flavor, too. Throughout the story, Sam’s love for his family underlies his struggles to support his family and comfort his wife in times of stress, such as when their boy is ill with “spring sickness” (pellagra). At the same time and despite their hardscrabble existence on the farm, there are numerous indicators and allusions to the fact that the couple has a tender and sensually romantic love life. But it is Sam’s even-tempered, but unwavering, determination and hard work that sustains them all through most of the story. Then in the end, when he has finally been crushed by the bad luck of a natural disaster, it is his wife, Nona, who gives him the spiritedly loving look that brightens and restores him. That lights him up inside. When you see her cheerful gaze upon Sam’s return to the house, you will be moved by the power of human love. This is Nona’s gift to Sam, and it is Renoir’s gift to the viewers. Don’t miss it.

  1. See for example:
  • The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, 2nd Edition (1998), by Christopher Vogler, Michael Wiese Production.
  • Save the Cat! (2005), by Blake Snyder, Michael Wiese Productons,
  • Scriptwriting Updated (2001), by Linda Aronson, Allen & Unwin Publishers.
  • The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver (1998), by Syd Field, Bantam-Doubleday-Dell Publishing.

“To Live” - Zhang Yimou (1994)

Zhang YImou’s sixth, and perhaps finest, feature film, To Live (Huozhe, 1994), outlines the struggles of a married couple during the period China was under the erratic and arbitrary rule of Mao Zedong. As such, the film draws immediate comparisons to two contemporary films by other Beijing Film Institute graduates, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite (Lan Feng Zheng, 1993) and Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (Ba Wang Bie Ji, 1993) which cover consequentially tragic disruptions during the same turbulent times. But Zhang’s film is different and rises above the obvious political and historical issues of those days to present a more profound and melancholy view of ordinary Chinese people’s struggles just to live a quiet, normal life.

One of the interesting aspects of the film is the way it presents undistinguished people far removed from the centers of the critical sociopolitical action of the day, and yet those same characters carry metaphorical overtones that suggest a larger commentary. This is one of the reasons why To Live is a great work. Of course, commentary on contemporary Chinese society is fraught with difficulties for anyone operating inside China, which has never in its long history enjoyed freedom of expression. Of the three films (of Tian, Chen, and Zhang) mentioned here covering the period of the Cultural Revolution, all of which avoided explicit criticism of the government, certainly To Live was the tamest – it did not even show any of the social violence or direct mass suffering of those times. In addition, Zhang Yimou has always objected to any suggestions that his films carry social criticisms of the Chinese system and has insisted that his films are really about universal, human issues. Zhang’s disclaimer notwithstanding, though, I do believe that To Live makes a poetic statement about not just human society, but Chinese society, in particular, and apparently the Chinese authorities saw it that way, too. Despite the precautions taken, To Live did not please the Chinese government censorial authorities: the film was banned, and both Zhang and his leading actress, Gong Li, received two-year bans on further co-productions and on even speaking about their film.

The story of the film about Xu Fugui and his wife Jiazhen is divided into five clearly delineated sections separated by significant gaps in time.
1. The Gambler (late 1940s - 21 minutes).  
Fugui is a carefree, dissipated member of the urban gentry who spends much of his time rolling dice in gambling parlors. His family, which includes his long-suffering pregnant wife, a young daughter, and his aged parents, urge him to give up his dissolute ways, but his gambling addiction has the better of him. While his wife Jiazhen says she only wants to live a simple life, Fugui, himself, is attracted to the glitter of a corrupted milieu. Before long he has gambled away the entire family estate, losing everything, including the family mansion, to an ingratiating schemer and puppet-show operator, Long’er. In no time at all Fugui has no home, his father has died of a stroke, and his wife and daughter have abandoned him. He now finds himself reduced to selling needles and thread in the local street market. 

2. The War of Liberation (1949 - 30 minutes). Months later, the now-reformed Fugui runs into his wife with their newborn son, and she agrees to take him into her meager quarters and renew their marriage. Fugui then acquires Long’er’s ornate shadow-puppet kit and takes over the street puppet show troupe, which includes one of Long’er’s former servants, Chunsheng. Just when things appear to be on the upswing, though, the Chinese Civil War sweeps into their part of China, and both Fugui and Chunsheng are impressed into serving in the Nationalist (Kuomintang) army fighting the Communists. After barely surviving the carnage of a bloody battle, they are taken prisoner by the Communist forces, and for the rest of the war perform their puppet show as entertainment for the troops. When he is released at the end of the war, Fugui returns to his home town and finds his wife, with whom he had not bothered to contact during the war, now destitute and barely surviving as a water-bottle delivery lady. He also learns that a severe illness has made his young daughter a partially deaf mute.

With the Civil War over and the Communists now in power, there were radically new social arrangements. “Counter-revolutionaries” and landlords are being rooted out, and everyone has been placed in communes under the jurisdiction of a local party chief. Soon Fugui witnesses the show trial and execution of Long’er, who had been accused of being a landlord due to his possession of Fugui’s family mansion. From all this Fugui and Jiazhen learn they had better keep their heads down: they conceal their past class background and swear that “poverty is good”.

3. The Great Leap Forward (1958 – 30 minutes).  
The years pass, and the action now shifts to 1958, when Mao launched the ruinous “Great Leap Forward”. This included mass collectivization and the attempt to push forward Chinese industrialization by organizing “backyard furnaces” for every commune. People were ordered to contribute all their iron-made tools and cooking utensils to local smelters and to work round the clock in order to achieve ambitious production quotas. Under these conditions, Fugui, in order to maintain face in the commune, orders his exhausted young son to report for work at the smelter. When his son falls asleep on the job, he is crushed to death by a falling brick wall accidentally run into by a truck driven by, as fate would have it, another exhausted worker, Chunsheng, who has now become a local Party official. The remorseful Chunsheng begs forgiveness, but Jiazhen is inconsolable and declares that he “owes her a life”.

4. The Cultural Revolution (1966 - 41 minutes).   
Mao launches the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”, and, again, the lives of ordinary people are overwhelmed, as they struggle to keep out of the way of the unpredictable Red Guards. In the captious atmosphere Fugui and Jiazhen learn that even their loyal-to-a-fault neighborhood chief has now been exiled and that Chunsheng, too, has been denounced. When Jiazhen sees how disturbed, possibly suicidal, Chunsheng is, she feels compassion and reminds him again that he owes her a life, implying that he should preserve his own life for her sake.
In the midst of this turmoil, Fugui and Jiazhen now have the difficult task of finding a suitable husband for their mute daughter, Fengxia, and they are fortunate to find a sincere and interested Red Guard worker who is also disabled: he walks with a severe limp. The match is arranged, and soon Fengxia is expecting a baby. Things seem to be going well at this point, but tragedy strikes when Fengxia goes to the hospital maternity ward. With all the senior medical doctors banished or incarcerated and brutalized for being “capitalist roaders”, there are only youthful Red Guards around to attend to the patients. When complications with the delivery emerge, the attendants are helpless, and though the baby is born, Fengxia passes away in front of her tearful mother.

5. Coda (six years later - 7 minutes).  
Fugui, Jiazhen, along with Fengxia’s son and husband, make a visit to the graves of their two children. Their tone is one of complete resignation to fate and the blind hope for a better tomorrow.
Usually the most interesting narratives feature some sort of journey towards a goal, with perhaps some adversaries, or villains, that must be overcome along the way. The reader/viewer’s interest in the story is often sustained by showing the conflict between the protagonist and the adversaries or obstacles to be overcome. In the case of To Live, however, there are no clearly identifiable villains, and there is no goal, other than simply “to live” a normal life without torment. All of the characters shown are ordinary people trying to operate according to the often-capricious rules. Even the opportunist gambler, Long’er, does nothing illegal and is not a true villain. Yet Zhang Yimou fashions a compelling story, anyway, by powerfully alluding to things not seen on the screen. In this case the unseen horror is the always-lurking potential for disruptive calamities that haunted the Chinese people during this era. Zhang conveys this horror, not by showing angry mobs or destructive riots, but by depicting ordinary people anxiously trying to get out of the way of these firestorms and live their own lives peaceably. It is often more scary not to show the monster, but to show the fear of the monster – for example Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) was more horrifying than James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) by not explicitly showing the alien monster and rather showing the protagonists fearfully trying to figure out what the monster might do. Here, too, Zhang achieves a haunting effect of fear in To Live by, for example, depicting the unhesitating willingness on the part of Fugui and Jiazhen to have their building painted over with huge pictures of Mao. It presents the picture of people whose survival instincts have trained them to automatically accept these things in order to avoid trouble. And yet, try as they might to avoid it, trouble comes to them, anyway.

So what is the unseen source of this trouble that gives rise to such fear? Certainly Zhang Yimou is correct to suggest that it extends universally to all of human society and is not something exclusive to the Chinese experience. It has to do with the tragic way that human society breaks down, the way war always erupts, the way oppression often gets the upper hand. In all cases it is the tragedy caused by people mindlessly inflicting harm on other people in accordance with the rules of their society. Nevertheless, surely the period of Chinese history covered in the film featured a particularly relentless and egregious sequence of these horrors.

However the social issues underlying what is covered here predate the advent of Communist rule in China. Chinese scholar Yan Fu (1854-1921) argued a century ago that the best and most progressive societies, whether East or West, are those that, according to Immanuel Hsü, “provided favorable conditions – liberty, rising equality of opportunity, self-government, public spirit, and impartial justice – to facilitate the liberation of the individual’s energies” so that they could be guided toward collective social goals [1]. Yan’s argument was that effective societies provide a secure platform, i.e. a suitable operating environment, that will allow human creativity and energy to advance the overall society. But instead of offering such a stable and supportive platform, the traditional “Confucian” culture of Chinese society always sought to micro-manage human behavior and dictate individual actions, as in the manner of the father of an extended family [2]. This tradition of intrusiveness has always been present in Chinese society and was merely amplified during the Maoist era (and, of course, it is carried on in many other parts of the world, as well). This is not to minimize the ingenious organizational techniques that the Chinese developed over the course of history to manage vast societies. But the argument of Yan Fu and others is that the social philosophy of control, pervasive surveillance, and micro-management from the top down inevitably leads to sweeping reforms that cause enormously destructive disruptions at the scale of individual lives. What truly makes a society great, Yan would claim, is not just meeting targeted aggregate production quotas or undertaking command-driven collective action, but instead simply the summation of the individual achievements of all the people living “ordinary” lives in harmony as best they can. The vision presented in To Live, then, is to my mind consonant with this view of social interference – it has a wider compass, beyond the specifics of any of history’s calamities, and seeks shelter for the humble aspirations of ordinary people. At the end of the film, we are moved to reflect: how can societies just let people live in peace?

The story of the film To Live was based on the 1993 novel of the same name, and this followed Zhang Yimou’s practice during this period of adapting recent Chinese fiction. Despite these various adaptations and the sharply contrasting cinematic styles that Zhang chose to present them, ranging as they do across neorealism, costume dramas, comedies, epics, and existential journeys, it is interesting that there seems to be a persistent auteurist stamp on all of his films. This aesthetic commonality is due in part, of course, to Zhang’s artistic sensitivity concerning color and depicting visual space. Moreover, he also very skillfully uses eye-contact to maintain smooth continuity in a scene, even though he regularly separates and fragments a scene into specific points of view. These perspectival separations contribute to an emotional dynamism and a heightened tension to his scenes that sustain the viewer’s interest. Another visual touch that subtly evokes the down-to-earth humanity of the ordinary people in this particular work is the frequent closeup footage of freshly prepared food throughout the film. These shots, which are inconspicuously woven into the narrative, bring forth the vivid character of everyday life that is essential to the story. In addition to his visual technique,s Zhang uses background music effectively to convey emotional moods. In To Live, in particular, Zhao Jiping’s musical score employing traditional Chinese instrumentation is exquisite, and the melancholy main theme underscores some of the most poignant moments in the film. Zhao had also composed the music for Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (Hong Gao Liang, 1987), Raise the Red Lantern (Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua, 1991), and The Story of Qiu Ju (Qiu Ju Da Guan Si, 1992), and his work even goes back to that first film of Chen Kaige’s, Yellow Earth (Huang Tu Di, 1984), for which Zhang Yimou was the cinematographer.

These vivid, visually stylistic features of Zhang Yimou's help to keep the viewer personally involved in the emotional dynamics of the story. This is why we can say that Zhang’s films are often expressionistic and also have an existentialist aura. And yet at the same time, in To Live, there is a larger, humanistic theme to the story, and this is what elevates the film to an unusually high level. As I mentioned earlier, the story doesn’t seem to have a goal or a clearly-defined adversary, and yet there is narrative development in the characters that is more than a plot line for human interest – the character development is essential to the narrative meaning. The two principal characters, Fugui and Jiazhen, are realistically played by Ge You and Gong Li, and yet their roles also carry certain metaphorical overtones. Gong Li projected the understated sense of quiet, feminine passion that she usually brings to a role in Zhang Yimou’s films, while Ge You won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance.

The role of Jiazhen might symbolize the long-suffering patience of the Chinese people. By the end of each of the narrative acts, she has stoically experienced a severe loss and degradation of her life:
  • Act 1 (The Gambler): loss of her home and the financial means to sustain her children
  • Act 2 (The War of Liberation): loss of the health of her daughter, Fengxia.
  • Act 3 (The Great Leap Forward): loss of her son.
  • Act 4 (The Cultural Revolution): loss of her daughter
  • Act 5 (Coda): loss of her health
Fugui, though, is the character for whom action is expected and who must take the lead. He is initially seen to be a weak, relatively harmless, character who perhaps symbolizes a certain aspect of society. In each of the film’s “acts” his selfish thoughtlessness leads to trouble for himself and others, but he does exhibit personal growth as the story develops. On the other hand, there is a positive side to the resilient and generally goodhearted Fugui, and he is someone with whom we can identify. Consider his personal development over the course of the film.
  • In Act 1 his complete arrogant self-indulgence leads to the financial ruin of his family.
  • In Act 2 he focuses on his own survival and neglects to contact his wife during the Civil War. When he returns, he finds that she is destitute and that his daughter has been crippled by a severe illness.
  • In Act 3 his weak and sycophantic behavior in the commune environment evokes images of Lu Xun’s famous story, “The True Story of Ah Q”. In that story the title character has no personal values or principles, and he emphatically adopts whatever posture or action might appear to be endorsed by the group. Here in To Live, Fugui’s efforts to maintain his "face" in the commune is at the expense of his own family and tragically contributes to his son’s death.
  • In Act 4 Fugui unthinkingly gives a famished medical doctor (who had been retrieved from the Red Guards to the hospital by his son-in-law) too many steam buns and water, thereby accidentally incapacitating him at a crucial moment when the doctor might have saved Fengxia’s life. In this case Fugui's behavior was quite innocent and unselfish, although he will later blame himself for what happened. Also during this segment, Fugui shows compassionate concern for Chunsheng's personal torment at the hands of the Red Guards.
  • In Act 5 Fugui has become self-critical and humble, blaming himself for his daughter's death. He is clearly solicitous towards his wife and has become more sensitive to the to the potentially harmful consequences of his own actions.
By the end of the film, Fugui has become a good man, not a hero. He is resigned to his fate and is merely trying to live a simple life with his wife. When he talks to his grandson at the end, he no longer parrots the nationalistic slogans for an imaginary collective Communist paradise of the future, but simply wishes that his grandson will grow up, be active, and have a happy life – “life will get better and better”.

  1. Immanuel C. Y. Hsü, The Rise of Modern China (1995), Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, p. 422.
  2. For example the long-standing traditional judicial system, oriented as it was around the patriarchal metaphor, enforced the following: the inequality of the sexes, the prevention of women from inheriting property, the denial of illegitimate children (such as offspring from concubines) from family succession, the collective punishment of all family members for crimes committed by a single member, and the “Ten Unpardonable Crimes” (parricide, unfilial behavior, incest, disharmony, insubordination, rebellion, conspiracy against the ruler, treason, inhuman offenses, and sacrilege). Ibid, p. 427.