Monday, May 17, 2010

Andrew Feffer

The White Ribbon: A Film Review

Andrew Feffer is associate professor of history and co-director of film studies at Union College.

The White Ribbon
(Das Weisse Band: Eine Deutsche Kindergeschicte)
Directed and written by Michael Haneke (2009)

A doctor’s horse is tripped by a wire as he gallops into his yard. A farm wife loses her life in a brutal accident at the local baron’s mill. Children are mysteriously abused. A gnawing sense of dark uncertainty hangs over the village in which these events take place. A mystery unfolds.

As in Caché, director Michael Haneke’s other masterpiece on the politics of silence and denial, that mystery never gets fully resolved in The White Ribbon. Instead, Haneke draws from it a subtle and intentionally elusive picture of collective historical responsibility. Caché brought to the door of the urbane and comfortable Parisian middle-class responsibility for the crimes of its deliberately brutal civil servants: the 1961 massacre by Paris police of French Algerian demonstrators, as well as the Algerian war they were protesting. The White Ribbon takes on something much larger.

Audiences and critics have seen in The White Ribbon an explanation for the rise of Nazism. The events of the film are set in a fictional northern German village on the eve of World War I. The children around whom the action centers are of the Hitler generation, born just after the turn of the 20th century, teens and young adults at the time of the 1923 Munich putsch, and the heart of the electorate that voted National Socialism into power in 1933. Haneke, however, is not happy with such a simple historically-bound interpretation. As he has told interviewers, the film is much more broadly about devotion to ideology borne of pain and suffering, and how unflagging and rigid beliefs such as governed villages like the one in the film led and still lead to terrorism of all sorts.

Such a broadly social and psychological approach allows Haneke an uncommon perspective on the historical events that he explores in this brilliant film. Styled as a simple children’s story (it is subtitled in German Eine Deutsche Kindergeschicte) about ordinary life in rural Germany before the First World War, The White Ribbon offers us no hints of the later decadence and decline of the Weimar period, the rootless urban populations of post-Versailles Berlin (as in Rainer Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and Bob Fosse’s Cabaret), the criminality of the mob stirring up the violence of the masses (to use Hannah Arendt’s well-worn explanation of totalitarian dynamics).

Instead we see just the opposite: a cohesive rural, semi-feudal yet prosperous village of the sort supposedly resistant to the acids of modernity, according to which the historically-minded among us usually explain the rise of fascism. The apparent stability and order of the community even opens up to an early scene of bucolic revelry during a harvest festival, reminiscent of the late medieval paintings of Pieter Breughel the Elder. Wine flows and table boards groan under the bounty of the fields and munificence of the baron, whose estate employs most of the locals at harvesting grain and cutting timber. What could be more idyllic?

Except it is not. The prosperity of the village rests on the grueling labor of peasants, farmers, and transient agricultural workers, the kind of labor that occasionally chews up one of the locals in the gears of the sawmill’s machinery. Civil order depends on the regular application of discipline and punishment, mainly directed at the village children, whose whippings, beatings and humiliations punctuate the story with a kind of muted, barely visible horror. Such punishment, inflicted in one scene by the local Lutheran minister on his two oldest children, is meant not only to prevent violation of rules and norms (they have come home late for dinner), but also to sustain in them a gnawing contemplation of shame, signified by the white ribbons the pastor forces his daughter and son to wear as visible reminders of the purity and innocence they have lost by disobeying their father.

In drawing our attention to the white ribbon, to the children’s shame as a formative influence on their public lives, Haneke moves the dynamics of totalitarianism back into the era before the Great War, the catastrophic event that ends the unresolved mystery that comprises the “children’s story” of the film. We can no longer simply blame the war’s devastation and the subsequent burdens of Versailles for creating the conditions under which the proverbial “rise of Hitler” took place. Rather, to understand the terrible history of the 20th century we have to look at factors deeply engrained in European culture: the clerical authoritarianism of the Reformation, the cynical irresponsibility of modern science (as represented by the village doctor whose evident competence masks a deeply selfish and brutalizing callousness), and the dehumanizing pragmatism of the baron’s political authority, barely hidden behind his paternalistic beneficence.

Each of the village’s most respectable citizens exercises power through the practice of a violence so automatic and naturalized that it does not elicit comment by any of the others, who (with only minor exception) fail not only to take responsibility for what is happening around them, but fail even to recognize that there is a problem for which responsibility must be taken. Until, of course, it is too late, and the violence (along with the shame and humiliation it cultivates) is internalized by the town’s children into mutual brutality and selfishness, visible in their abject postures, averted gazes and stolen glances, and manifest in their actions. Only the teacher (the teller of the tale, whose voice-over puts an unintentionally ironic distance on the events, as if what was so horrible in that year of 1913-14 would be passed through to a less rather than more terrifying era) sustains a remnant of the 19th-century humanism that was destroyed by the mass hysterias of the twentieth.

As in his other films, Haneke relieves this relentless picture of repression and shame with the occasional redemptive moment. A romance that unfolds between the teacher and a much younger nanny seems to be headed toward the kind of inequality and domination that characterizes most of the other relationships in the village. One can imagine a future for the two of them governed by the sort of patriarchal authority that the pastor exercises over his wife and children. Yet as the teacher drives the girl out into the countryside for a picnic and what would seem to be the usual assignation with which a conventional marriage is launched, the relationship suddenly changes. The girl asks to turn back for the sake of her reputation. In a brief exchange of glances we see in the teacher a simple recognition of her needs and respect for her as a person, a kind of reciprocity otherwise squeezed out of village life by its regimes of labor, worship and paternal rule. He turns the carriage around. She smiles, kisses him gently and leans her head on his shoulder.

Other scenes convey the resistance of a farm boy to baronial authority and a midwife’s refusal of the doctor’s humiliation, depicted with the kind of visual subtlety rare among contemporary filmmakers. These moments signify narrow openings toward enlightenment and equality, and so this exceptional film leaves us with some alternatives to the shame and humiliation, the brutality that spread itself so darkly over the continent as the century unfolded. •

— This article appears in April 2010 issue of
Shalom: Jewish Peace Letter, the monthly online magazine of Jewish Peace Fellowship [].