The White Ribbon

On TV tonight: news of the fourth major report in the past decade investigating the abuse of children by Ireland’s Catholic clergy and teachers and the collusion of the Irish police and archbishops in covering up decades of sexual and physical torture; and a Channel 4 documentary from Jerusalem on the rapid growth of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect, the Haredi, that impose strict segregation of the sexes and reject any state interference in their family or community affairs, which they consider sacred.

This just after seeing the latest film from Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon, in which the roots of repression and authoritarianism in family and community structures is explored.  The film’s original subtitle (left untranslated for English-speaking viewers) is Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte, or A German Children’s Story, but though the film is set in Germany just before the outbreak of the First World War, as Haneke has insisted, it would be an error to reduce the film just to this specific period and this specific country:

‘I think the Germans should see this film as a film about Germany; however, I think people in other countries should see the film as saying something about their own countries.’
(see the YouTube interview, below).

The events of the film, starkly but beautifully photographed in black and white, take place in the year leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914. The story is narrated by the village schoolmaster who begins:

I don’t know if the story that I want to tell you, reflects the truth in every detail. Much of it I only know by hearsay, and a lot of it remains obscure to me even today, and I must leave it in darkness. Many of these questions remain without answer. But I believe I must tell of the strange events that occurred in our village, because they may cast a new light on some of the goings-on in this country…

Over the course of a year, this feudal, God-fearing village is plagued by a series of strange events. The doctor is felled from his horse by a tripwire placed near his home. A woman is killed when the rotting floor of the local sawmill collapses.  The young son of the Baron is whipped and hung upside down in the sawmill. The manor barn is burnt down in the middle of the night. The handicapped son of the midwife is tied to a tree, tortured and left with a handwritten message about divine punishment.

All of the characters are linked together by one fact: geographical proximity. They are all residents of the same village and almost all of them, particularly the women and children, are victims of abuse, physical, sexual, or emotional.  Haneke depicts a community in which punishment and fear define every aspect of life, every social class, and every family, though the main victims of the prevailing authoritarian structures of family, church and society are women and children. Indeed, the most forceful scenes are between husbands and wives, or fathers and children.

The key scene in the film comes when the Baron’s wife decides to leave him, taking their children.  She says she’s sick of living in a place dominated by ‘malice, envy, apathy and brutality… I’m sick and tired of  persecutions, threats and perverse acts of  revenge’.

This is a remarkable film – to my mind, Haneke’s finest. The sense of a mystery that is never resolved keeps you gripped, and both the cinematography and the acting (by both children and adults) are superb. Most impressive are the performances of  Christian Friedel as the schoolteacher and Leonie Bensch as the Baron’s governess. They are the only individuals untouched by the cruelty around them, and their growing love for each other is delicately presented by the two actors, combining Victorian formality with a sense of simmering passion.

At the film’s conclusion, the narrator looks back and reflects on these events:

Today,  more  than  a  quarter  of  a  century  later, toward  the  end  of  my  life,  and  several  years after the end of a second war that was to change this world in a more cruel and radical way than the  first  one,  the  one  we  faced  at  the  time,  I wonder  if  the  events  of  those  days  and  our silence  about  them,  weren’t  the  germ  of  the tragedy toward which we were heading. Didn’t we all know secretly what had happened in our midst? Hadn’t we, in a way, made it possible by closing  our  eyes?  Didn’t  we  keep  our  mouths shut  because  otherwise  we  would  have  had  to wonder if the misdeeds of these children, of our children,  weren’t  actually  the  result  of  what we’d been teaching them?

New York Film Festival 09: Michael Haneke discusses The White Ribbon


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