Review: “The White Ribbon” (2009)
WARNING: ARE THERE SPOILERS IN A MICHAEL HANEKE FILM?
I should’ve known.
I saw the trailer with its exquisite black-and-white photography, beautiful, rising choir music, and the faces of serious children saying, in German, “Forgive us, father,” “Please forgive us,” all of it interspersed with Palme D’or awards and quotes from critics (“It feels like a classic even as you’re watching it for the first time.” — Scott Foundas, LA WEEKLY), and I thought: “I gotta see this.”
Last Friday I finally got the chance. Five minutes in, I realized, “Oh, wait. This is a Michael Haneke film, isn’t it? Fuck.”
The choir music may rise, in other words, but nothing is uplifting.
Haneke’s films (“Cache,” “La pianiste,” “Le temps du loup,” “Funny Games”) don’t really educate so much as remind. They remind us of two things in particular: “People are brutal” and “You don’t know why.”
Those who agree with that first sentiment often make exceptions. They’ll say, “Well, people may be brutal but children aren’t.” They’ll say, “People are brutal now, but in the past, in a simpler time, we were better.”
To which Haneke replies, “Let them come to ‘Das weisse Bande: Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte’” (“The White Ribbon: A German children’s story”).
The film is set in a German village in the year before the Great War. The villagers are known by their occupations (The Farmer) or their relationship to someone with that occupation (The Farmer’s Wife). Only the children have names.
It’s basically a crime mystery in which we guess the criminals at the outset, have that guess strengthened throughout, then leave the theater without an answer. It’s wholly atmospheric, and the atmosphere is one of dread barely held in check. It’s one of tight-assed propriety masking something monstrous.
Our narrator is the School Teacher, voiced as an old man (Ernst Jacobi) but viewed as a young one (Christian Friedel). “It all began, I think,” he says, “with the Doctor’s accident.” He’s still using the language of the village, since the “accident” occurs when the Doctor (Rainer Bock), returning from an afternoon horseride, is cut down by a wire strung across the gate at knee length. The horse is killed, the Doctor goes to the hospital, the wire goes missing.
Village life centers around the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), who owns more than 50 percent of the land and for whom many in the village work, but our village centers around the Pastor (Burghart Klaubner) and his family, particularly his children, particularly the eldest two: Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragas), an upright, handsome girl, with something like defiance in her seemingly respectful stance, and Martin (Leonard Proxauf), a striking boy with bags under his eyes and something like shame oozing from every pore. We first see them together the evening of the doctor’s accident when they face their father’s quiet wrath for being late for dinner. They ask for forgiveness, as in the trailer, and don’t get it. “I don’t know what’s worse: your absence or your coming back,” the Pastor says. He passes sentence—10 strokes of the cane the next evening—and they are made complicit in their punishment. “Do you agree?” the Pastor says. When the punishment comes, the boy is made to get the cane and the whipping occurs behind closed doors. This is a village where things occur behind closed doors.
As the summer progresses, things get worse. The Farmer’s wife dies, a victim of an accident at the Baron’s factory, and when we finally arrive we hear one man counsel another: “Careful, it’s all rotten.” What’s all rotten? Our mind is filled with the worst possible images until Haneke, taking his sweet time, pans over to the rotten wooden floorboards that gave way and ended a life.
But it is all rotten. Things are whispered and people’s minds are filled with the worst possible images. It’s said that the Baron is to blame for the accident, and during harvest celebration one of the Farmer’s sons takes revenge by destroying the Baron’s cabbage patch. It’s a clumsy, known event that shames the Farmer. Later that night, the Baron’s curly-headed son, Sigi (Fion Mutert), goes missing, and is found at 2:30 a.m., hanging upside-down in the barn, whipped and in a state of shock. Later still the barn is burned. What undercurrent, whose undercurrent, is controlling events in this village?
The following year, the Steward’s daughter confesses to the Teacher that she dreamed something horrible will happen to Karli, the mentally disabled son of the Midwife. Has she dreamed it? Or has she been told it? And why? Why would someone do such a thing to Karli? The Midwife, we know, has been having an affair with the Doctor—we see him schtupping her without pleasure upon his return from the hospital—but he ends their relationship brutally, telling her she’s ugly, old, flabby, has bad breath, and when she doesn’t get it, declares, “My God, why don’t you just die?” Shortly after, his son, Gustav (Thibault Sérié), four or five years old, wakens one evening to find his older, teenaged sister, Anna (Roxane Duran), gone from their bedroom. He goes downstairs, scared, calling her name. He opens doors. Behind one of them he finds his father and sister. Her nightgown is pushed up, exposing her thighs. She’s getting her ears pieced, she says. She doesn’t seem scared. Haneke is putting us in the position of the villagers. We just get glimpses behind closed doors. Our minds are filled with the worst possible images.
Eventually something horrible does happen to Karli. He’s tortured, blinded, tied to a tree, and a note is left behind quoting Biblical text about the sins of the parents being visited upon the children, even unto the third or fourth generation. One assumes the Pastor’s children are responsible, as one assumed from the beginning, with Klara the ringleader and Martin the reluctant participant. But why the Midwife’s son? Because of the Midwife’s affair with the Doctor? Because of the rumors that she and the Doctor killed the Doctor’s Wife five years earlier?
The Pastor keeps punishing his children by making them wear ribbons of white, the color of innocence, to remind them of the purity from which they came, but it hardly helps. We see Klara killing the Pastor’s favorite bird and leaving the evidence on his desk. He knows she did it. Or: We suspect greatly that he suspects greatly that she did it. But when the School Teacher comes to him with accusations of their crimes, the Pastor protects what’s his and threatens the School Teacher. By this point, the Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated and the Great War begun. You could say we are unto the third or fourth generation still suffering from those 1914 sins.
Is there any innocence in Haneke’s vision? Any beauty beyond the cinematography? The School Teacher begins a relationship with Eva (Leonie Benesch), who’s working as a nanny, and they have a kind of halting, stammering sweetness together. But the relationship is mostly marked by its difficulties. This is a world where kindness is difficult, brutality easy and total.
Perhaps the most instructive scene occurs between Gustav and Anna at the breakfast nook after the death of the Farmer’s wife. Earlier Gustav had worried about their father’s absence and Anna had assured him he would return. Remember when you got sick last winter? Then you got better? It’s like that. But now he asks about death. She tries to explain it. “Does everyone die?” he asks. Yes. “Everyone really? But not you, Anni?” Me, too. “But not Dad.” Yes, Papa. Then he makes the big leap. “Me, too? It has to happen? ... And Mom? Is she dead, too?” Anna couches her answers with the comfort of time, which is actually the enemy. Mom died a long time ago, she says. He, Gustav, won’t die for a long time. But Gustav is making the connection all of us make, and that may mark the true end of innocence and the true beginning of brutality: the knowledge, which we carry all of our lives, that everyone and everything, including us, dies. And he angrily sweeps the dishes onto the floor. It’s a great scene.
If “The White Ribbon” sounds like an interesting film, it is. It’s interesting to write about, interesting to talk about, but less interesting to watch. It’s not that I disagree with Haneke’s vision, I merely think it’s devoid of light. He’s incomplete. What he's missing is a glimmer of anything that makes life worth living. He’s a child angrily sweeping the dishes onto the floor.
“Bitte verzeihen Sie.”