Feb 3 2010

The White Ribbon

Where does evil come from?  A complex question with a number of debatable answers, no doubt, but in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, the answer is simple: home sweet home.

Recounting his experiences as a schoolteacher in a small German town just before World War One, an elderly German man (Ernst Jacobi, with Christian Friedel playing him as a younger man) tells the story of a series of strange events resulting in the injuries of a number of townspeople.  The town itself is, by first glance, a simple town of farmers, children, a town pastor, doctor and a Baron who owns the village; pretty standard for an early Twentieth century, pastoral community.

However, the sudden injury of the town doctor involving a hidden trip wire in the middle of the road casts an ominous shadow that looms over the tiny village.  Over the course of the year, children disappear and are found tied to trees in the nearby forest.  And as if things can’t get any worse, there are no clues or witnesses to speak of, with the exception of the children, who always appear, or possibly return, to the scene of the crime.

Shot in desaturated black and white, Haneke removes anything that could add any life to the environment, reflecting the barren indifference of the inhabitants of this eerie little town.  Furthermore, there is no musical score, sparse camera movement, and very conventional, unobtrusive editing.  One would think that the lack of style or flair would leave one bored, and in many cases they would be right.  In White Ribbon, however, this kind of silent filmmaking makes one a slave to their own imagination.  The camera often follows characters around tight corridors of houses and stops just short of a turn, lingering for a few moments in absolute silence, keeping the audience in a constant state of panic.  “What’s going on?”  “Where did he go?”  “Who else is in that house!?”

At the beginning of the film, the narrator states that some of the events in his story are hearsay, and that he did not witness them directly.  Furthermore, the narrator confesses that, due to the amount of time that has gone by since, his memory is a bit hazy.  As a result, there are a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions; it should be said that we never see these nefarious acts in action, nor do we find out just went on.  We are just as much in the dark about the whole event as our mild-mannered schoolteacher.

Haneke’s open-ended series of events forces us to tap ino the darkest recesses of our minds in order to fill in the blanks of this mystery, and for good reason: this film is not a German rendition of Children of the Corn.  Haneke said that this film explores, “the origin of every type of terrorism, be it political or religious [in] nature”, thus the film lingers not with the violence itself, but asks the question: where does such horrible, cruel indifference come from?

Fortunately, or unfortunately, the answer is not nature, but in nurture.  Despite the solemn, uber-strict religious sentiment that surrounds the village, the adults in the town are far from saintly, further than even the status quo.  The pastor, who’s seven children are seen as prominent figures within their own social circle, subjects his children to a number abuses that include tying them to their beds, skipped meals, and good old fashioned flogging (And what warrants such brutality? Showing up late for supper, mostly).  The most notable of these punishments is the use of a white ribbon, in which the symbolic purity derived by the color inversely reflects in impurity of its wearers.   What’s even more unsettling than the punishments themselves is the manner in which they are given; the good pastor delivers these acts of retribution in a manner of cruel self-righteousness that is equal parts cold and casual.

Children, if anything, are reflections of the culture that brought them up.  If children are treated with such an authoritative malice and mechanical apathy, one would have to wonder what the children will do with this identity bestowed upon them.  The implied result of this upbringing within the film is extreme, yes, but it should also be said that these children would have been in their thirties or early forties at the time of Hitler’s rise to power.  People today have often asked, how could an entire country be seduced by a cold, malicious monster?  Haneke gives you his answer.

Of course, the film is not about the Nazi party; it’s more than that.  If anything, this film serves as a kind of warning to the older generations that a child’s innocence makes them apt pupils of humanity, or what our own interpretations and exercises in said humanity may be.  What will become of today’s children?  The answer, of course, is what we show them, and then some.

One Response to “The White Ribbon”

  • Ann Says:

    I am pretty sure you mean “Of course…” in the beginning of the last paragraph. Anyway, it just makes you think “How do I really need to treat my future children?”. Do I put them through the same religious instruction as myself or give them the freedom of exploring their own beliefs and making their own decisions? I did enjoy this film quite a bit even though throughout it I was constantly afraid of what would happen or see next. Being a Catholic myself I have experienced harsh discipline within the church and did not turn out to cause mischief on a whim. I believe that I was too scared because of the punishment that comes with it. What would I be able to do in a situation that the child does not take the same action as myself? I would be screwed. Haha. I recommend that everyone should see this film. It may be long for the common moviegoer, but it screws with your perception quite a bit and can be quite an experience.

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