In The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke’s black and white film set in a pre WWI German village, one of the dramatic threads is the local physician’s affair with a neighbor. She adores him to the point of servitude, which he allows and, we learn, disdains. After he has regained health, and his daughter is old enough to attract him beyond a few touches, he unleashes a litany of the neighbor’s flaws: bad breath, flabby skin, ugliness, stench, and so on. She disgusts him, especially in comparison to his deceased wife. The disparaged lover doesn’t buckle, though she trembles a little. She responses, holds her ground, and seems, actually, to hold her place. Though he says “Why don’t you die” as his last dig, there’s the sense, at least in this viewer, that she wins the verbal battle. His needs are tremendous and her omnipresence is powerful.
What struck me almost as much as the riveting scene was its similarity to one in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, which I saw for the first time only a few months ago. It’s not easy to forget. There, arrogant and severely depressed pastor Tomas Ericcson hammers his lover, Marta, with a list of flaws: ugliness, rashes, gastric problems. She cannot compare with his late wife. She disgusts him. She sits as stoically as the physician’s lover, blinks a little, and is willing to continue the affair so debased, unworthy, and hurting.
There are many similarities in the two films, of course, a world at war, people hungry to have basic needs met, severe social strictures locking in adults and children, the passing on of deprivation and pain. I’m not a film critic and don’t intend to take on much here. Of course the powerless woman is often depicted as unflinchingly accepting whatever she must to stay in a tiny place, so that’s not new. The scenes are just so very, very similar that I wonder if Michael Haneke was indebted to Ingmar Bergman. He must have been.