The White Ribbon
Directed by Michael Haneke

If, as the Austrian director Michael Haneke has told us, films should not claim “to depict or represent a reality that none of us can know,” then historical narratives are as suspect as personal ones. Indeed, Haneke maintains that only politicians have answers, that the ordering of historical events in a conventional narrative is inevitably a form of propaganda. Haneke apparently distrusts all historical accounts and particularly those in historical film. Films are artifacts rather than reliable reconstructions, and his film about a pre-World War I German village is his creative artifact, a history without historicity.

Filmed in black and white and set in northern Germany circa 1913, The White Ribbon may remind you of early Bergman, Buñuel, and other great European filmmakers of a previous generation, but it pays homage to none of them. Haneke has crafted a brilliantly original film of compelling authenticity. His decision to do without a soundtrack adds to the intensity of our aesthetic experience.

The starting point of the film, Haneke told an interviewer, was the idea of a “church choir in Protestant Northern Germany before the first world war” and the children in the choir who “had internalized the moral imperatives that they’d been taught by their parents and then judged their parents according to the moral imperatives that they preached.” In the twenty years Haneke worked on the screenplay, another idea seems to have worked its way into the film: these children would grow up to be the first generation of Nazis. Life in the bleak German village Haneke has created is beset by inexplicable acts of sadism.

Haneke has a reputation in Europe for “cerebral horror films,” but is best known to Americans for The Piano Teacher and Caché (or Hidden). The former, a psychological portrait of a sadomasochistic woman, may have shocked moviegoers, but it delighted Lacanian psychoanalysts. Simultaneously real and surreal, it offers an unflinching performance by Isabelle Huppert as an instructor at the Vienna conservatory whose despair over a career impasse drives her to act out her sexual fantasies. That conjunction of despair and perversion opens a window into the human condition.

Caché, set in Paris and starring Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, follows the conventions of a psychological thriller. An upper-class French couple discover that they are under surveillance. The paranoid tension mounts; every event seems to have sinister significance. The relationship cracks under the pressure. But then, instead of a resolution that identifies a malefactor and ties the strands of the mystery into an intelligible order, Haneke leaves everything up in the air. In fact, the harder you struggle to find the “hidden” cause, the more elusive it becomes, and you realize that Haneke intended to leave you baffled. Caché is not a postmodern, non-linear narrative that can be sorted out and understood as a deeper kind of storytelling. Haneke promised audiences a mystery, and gave them mystification. Some moviegoers were frustrated, but most serious critics
liked it.

Caché was not an act of caprice. A longtime student of psychology and philosophy, Haneke mounted an attack on the structure of storytelling and on our settled expectations of how human experience is ordered by narrative.

The White Ribbon, too, recounts malevolent events, raises questions, but gives few answers. The film is narrated by the school teacher, well after the story it portrays. He has grown old, and he concedes at the outset that his memory may be failing, that many of the specifics he knows only by hearsay. The teacher is the antithesis of the omniscient narrator, but he believes that understanding what happened in the village may give clues to what happened later in “our country.” The school teacher, we eventually learn, thinks that his students are responsible for what happened, and that the son and daughter of the village’s protestant minister are their leaders. Yet when the teacher shares those suspicions, the minister—who supposedly judges good and evil in the name of God—threatens to send him to prison if he repeats the allegations.

Many of the events in The White Ribbon are universals in the lives of children and families, but we see them in their cruelest and most bitter form.

As in Caché, individual segments of The White Ribbon are pieces of conventional storytelling. But they are held together only by Haneke’s artistry, not the logic of storytelling leading to resolution. There is in both films a sense of chronology, of events happening in sequence, but that timeline leaves us in a maze of unanswered and unanswerable questions. The segments of The White Ribbon introduce us to the main characters in the village: the doctor, the midwife, the steward, the baron whose estate dominates the village, the minister, a peasant worker singled out by the accidental death of his wife, and their families. American audiences will not recognize any of the actors, whose faces often resemble those of Albrecht Durer’s austere and melancholy prints. The village is agrarian, a place where feudalism, Lutheranism, and the rhythm of the seasons still structure the lives of the largely impoverished citizenry.

The film begins with the first of many sinister events. Someone has stretched between the trees at the entrance to the doctor’s yard a wire that will cruelly throw him and his horse to the ground, injuring both. Who did it and for what reason we are never told, but by the end of the film we might believe the doctor deserved it; he is a kind healer but an odious father, who molests his teenage daughter and has used and sexually abused the midwife, daring her to commit suicide when he rejects her.

Many of the events Haneke shows us are universals in the lives of children and families, but we see them in their cruelest and most bitter form. The steward’s son, perhaps twelve years old, resents that his mother has given birth to yet another boy. The son (we are led to suspect) leaves the baby’s window open in the dead of winter—an understandable but unforgivable attempt to eliminate his hated rival. The same son and an older brother are so envious of the baron’s spoiled and beloved young child Sigi that they throw him in a pond and steal his whistle. The enraged steward brutally thrashes his older son and demands that he hand over the whistle. The boy obstinately denies his guilt and then, as the father descends the stairs still in his rage, we hear the unmistakable shrill of the whistle come from the boy’s room—confession or defiance: perhaps both. Yet the Steward’s fealty to the baron is abject and so the assault on little Sigi has deeper psychological and even political meaning. Nothing is more alienating to a son than a tyrannical father kowtowing in fear and deference to his superiors: it is the ultimate demonstration of the hypocrisy of pater potestas and the legitimacy of political authority. Within the family dynamics, we sense the political rebellion.

This theme is more openly echoed in the life of the tragic peasant whose wife falls to her death through the floor of the baron’s rickety barn. The peasant’s oldest son blames the baron and gets his revenge by destroying the baron’s cabbage patch. The father, more realist than kowtower, explains that their family cannot survive without the baron’s largesse. And, as if to prove his point, he hangs himself, leaving the burden of the family’s survival on his rebellious and vengeful progeny.

Two unforgettable moments involve the doctor’s four-year-old son, Rudolph, whose mother died giving birth to him. His motherly fourteen-year-old sister, Anna, tries to explain what death is. Rudolph is too young to comprehend fully, but apparently too old to accept false reassurances. He understands that his absent mother is not away on a trip, as he has been told, and he learns that in time he too must die. As if to defy this new knowledge, he sweeps his supper dishes to the floor. Rudolph wanders through a darkened house looking for his sister, whose absence from her bed at night has alarmed him. He will discover her being sexually abused by their father. Can the boy possibly understand what he sees? Anna, quick-witted, conjures up a deception about what is happening: their father was piercing her earlobes. And the doctor, as he buttons his fly, ambiguously joins her ruse. “Beauty must suffer,” he says. In both encounters, we, of course, are meant to understand what Rudolph does not—his loss of innocence.

The film’s most appalling scenes take place between the protestant minister and his two oldest children, Martin and Klara, whom he burdens with shame and guilt. Martin is told that because he masturbates, he will rot and die here on earth and presumably be damned in the hereafter. His hands are tied to the sides of the bed every night, for punishment and for his own good. Klara, unfairly chastised and humiliated by her father in front of her classmates, escapes his sanctimonious torments only by fainting. She will exact revenge by crucifying her father’s pet bird on a pair of scissors. But this revenge goes beyond judging and punishing her father by the moral imperatives he has preached: a show of unblinking cruelty to an innocent and vulnerable creature, it partakes of the diabolical. And we are led to assume that the other children follow Martin and Klara in actions that are even more diabolical: the torture of little Sigi and the midwife’s mentally disabled child, the beloved and the forsaken, but both innocent and vulnerable. The midwife’s tortured child is discovered with a note warning about God “visiting the iniquity of the father upon the sons to the third and fourth generation.” Are children capable of that? Their schoolteacher believes they are.

Haneke tells us it would be wrong if his film were seen “as a diatribe against religion.” Like many moralizers before him, Haneke is for Christ, but against the Church. His title is taken from the mark of shame that the minister makes Martin and Klara wear as a reminder of the difference between good and evil. But Haneke’s film suggests that the white ribbon instead is emblematic of the iniquity of the pastor and the other abusive fathers of this imagined German village. An iniquity they visit on their own children, forging the conscience of a generation that would embrace Hitler and participate in the final solution. Indeed, The White Ribbon is not just a film, but an ambitious work of art, a timeless masterpiece that like all great art finds the universal in the particular.