Around the World: The White Ribbon

looks at Michael Haneke’s depiction of life in a German village just before the start of WWI

Over summer many of us will be going to the cinema to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters. So as an alternative this August the Nouse team is having a look at some of the gems of world cinema, which are often unfairly ignored in favour of their American counterparts. 

Image: Sony Pictures

1913 was 105 years ago. That is nothing in evolutionary terms. None of us have grown wings, and none of us have developed gills since then. At least to my knowledge. And do human conflicts, endeavours, and relationships not remain the same at their core? Michael Haneke’s answer to that question would be affirmative. His brilliant 2009 film Das weiße Band, eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon) suggests this, depicting Wilhelmine Germany as a deeply authoritarian and religious society on the eve of World War I.

The film, roughly covering the period of summer 1913 to the beginning of WWI, is set in the fictitious protestant village of Eichwald in Northern Germany. Events are narrated by an old man reminiscing on his days as a schoolteacher in the village. Several disturbing criminal events unfold after one another, starting with a stretched wire between two trees that causes the doctor to fall off his horse. As village life continues normally with harvest, young courtship, and religious ceremonies, crime does not rest. The Baron’s son is humiliated repeatedly, a farming estate is set on fire, and the midwife’s disabled son is disturbingly maimed. Who is responsible?

On first glance, this plot poses as generic crime story in a period setting. We dive deep into a tight-knit rural community where everyone knows one another, familial secrets are more widely known than the lyrics of chants, and everyone tries to maintain their good name. Only the teacher (Christian Frieder), although superficially, investigates the crimes and he comes the closest to unravelling the mystery of events. Most people take these horrible events as they come, almost as acts of god they have to endure, as opposed to societal problems they can fix. Eichwald is a village of deep religion and superstition. Horrible events unfold randomly with no connection to one another, and no motives ever shown. And why would they? The villagers do not regard it as their domain, maybe because only authority is to resolve such matters. Even at the end only suspicion remains about who was responsible, even though the teacher raises a horrible allegation that cannot be proven.

The crimes communicate a lack of purpose and design that renders them horrifying. Why would anyone do this without clear motives? Rarely does Haneke indicate intentions of characters, although he provides plenty of information about them. It is, however, interesting that the victims are all beneficiaries of the societal order. They are all figures of authority, such as the Baron and his family, or recipients of care and respect, such as the midwife’s son. Do the perpetrators find them undeserving of their place in society?

The White Ribbon does not provide easy answers for questions like this and Haneke is not interested in making it easy for the viewer. Practices of authority and religion permeate everything, from forcing children to wear a white ribbon to preserve their purity to tying a boy to his bed lest he masturbates. The pastor (Burghart Klaußner) a strict and patriarchal figure, is at the forefront of this, (unsurprisingly) promoting a Protestant Ethic of responsibility and punishment seemingly with every breath he takes. Children are the main subjects of this treatment; watching them test the boundaries of what is acceptable in spite of severe punishment reveals a strong generational conflict that lies at the heart of this film.

Beautifully shot in black and white, the cinematography greatly compliments the film. Many frames are like paintings, with wide angles reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. At other times the camera lingers endlessly on someone’s face, often almost uncomfortably long. No frame in this film feels forced or staged, owing great debt to the director’s clear vision. Several times it would be perfectly reasonable to regard this as a detached documentary. Haneke’s direction and cinematography remove any human warmth from the film. What remains is brutal honesty and humiliation. It is an intimate portrayal of people trading utterances of incredible candour, careless about the emotions they provoke with their words.

Despite all this, The White Ribbon somehow manages to remain an intimate portrayal of village life. Watching this is no laughing matter; several times it is unbearable. Rarely do films provoke such sentiment. 1913 and 1914, marking the true end of the nineteenth century with an unassailable belief in the righteousness of progress and the unassailability of authority, are long behind us. We should probably be dancing in the streets if this is what we have relinquished in the meantime. Michael Haneke’s greatest feat with this film is to locate the roots of evil in daily life and potentially within every single one of us. Whether humanity has changed after all, is questionable. But this suggests it is up to us, in the end.

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