Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon
Michael Haneke’s films are never easy to watch. I believe it would be safe to say the Haneke tends to assault his viewers out of their complacencies.
If you like your films to have a soft-edged, feel-good resolution, you should definitely save your ten bucks—twenty-five with popcorn and a beverage– and wait for Hollywood’s romantic-comedy summer fare.
Haneke is not your man.
That said, let me begin by saying that “The White Ribbon,” Haneke’s latest, is a tour de force. It is no wonder that Cannes gave the film its prestigious Palme d’Or award. It was well-deserved
“I don’t know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true,” says the narrator, a local teacher and musician. “And many questions remain unanswered.” If the director isn’t done with quietly opening us to that ancient once-upon-a-time introduction, he allows the narrator to draw us in even more with the promise of “strange events….in our village.” We have been warned and duly prepped.
But the narrator is not quite through with his reader-beware seduction. We are told that the “events” in the village, “could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country.”
Now that we know that the story may or not be true, that “perhaps” it says something about the narrator’s own country, we can just sit back and enjoy the ambiguity of a good story while watching an entire village decompose with one calamitous event after another.
The film has an unusual number of characters who all play critical roles: a doctor and his mistress (the local midwife), a minister, a farmer, a teacher (the narrator) and his girlfriend, a baron and baroness, a steward, and many of the children of the adult characters.
The children are both active and passive participants in the unfolding of the events. They are more than just a Greek chorus witnessing calamities, however. They are often portrayed as prime suspects, even though we are never given any explicit evidence of their potential participation in those events. Suffice it to say that the children often show up right after a catastrophe and ask fawning, polite, caring questions.
I might add here that on at least one occasion, some of the children are more than mere suspects. After the doctor attends to the steward’s infant child and leaves, one of the children sits down in clear relief while another asks a second sibling about his interest in knowing whether the father was in his office.
And some of the children are victims. That much we do know.
Now the events: the doctor comes home from a visit. Someone has mysteriously put a wire between two trees, obviously knowing the doctor’s schedule and route. The doctor and his horse tumble to the ground. He is hospitalized and the horse dies. At the same time, a farmer’s wife falls to her death in the sawmill. Later on, a child of the baron and baroness is found tied upside down, his buttocks bleeding from cane strokes. In another incident, the recently-born child of the steward almost dies after someone leaves a window open in the child’s room in the middle of winter.
The final catastrophic event occurs when Karli, the mentally disabled child of the midwife, is found brutally beaten in the forest with a cryptic Biblical message, “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations.”
If those known events aren’t enough to grab an audience, we become uncomfortably privy to some of the the dirty, little village secrets.
The doctor, we find out, has been molesting his daughter as he justifies his predatory actions with the typically Mishima-like notion that “beauty has to suffer.” He rounds out his despicablness further with a volley of venomous remarks to the midwife: “ You disgust me. You’re ugly, messy, flabby, and have bad breath…decrepit…in the end, it’s you again, and I feel like puking.”
The midwife gets in her share of accusations by outing him as a molester and by exposing him as just as cruel to his first wife. Typical of Haneke’s approach in this film, we do not know if the doctor’s final disappearance with his two children may have been a murder perpetrated by the midwife (stranger things have happened in Haneke’s home country, Austria).
Although the midwife says she’s going to the police to reveal who was responsible for what happened in the village, she and her disabled son both disappear and are never heard from again.
The death of the farmer’s wife in the sawmill accident devastates him and the family. In revenge, the son destroys the baron’s cabbage garden. The baron fires the family workers and the disgraced farmer hangs himself.
Not to be undone, the minister’s dark, rigid, Puritanical streak causes him to beat his children for staying out late and to tie his son up to prevent him from masturbating (For those of us who grew up Catholic, we could certainly identify with the brutal description of the minister in describing to his guilt-ridden son the “pustules” and horrific death of a child who also masturbated)
The minister is a chronic sadist who uses some form of physicality or exterior sign to reinforce the force of his puritanical rigidity—the beatings, the public shame, the droning repetition of the “blood-shed-for-you-to-forgive-your-sins” mantra at the church service, tying a white ribbon around his children to remind them of their innocence, and then the constant lectures to his children about their lack of maturity.
When the teacher suggests to the minister that his children may have been involved in the town’s tragedies, he threatens the teacher with prison for accusing the children from “respectable families.” Respectability, of course, is the grand bourgeois mask of moral exceptionalism.
There are three of what I call love-relief scenes in the film but they too are compromised in the film’s somewhat fatalistic view of life.
The baroness returns with her family from Italy and appears to have become stronger from the vacation away from what she calls the “malice and envy” of the town. She tells her husband that she is leaving again, and finally, because she has fallen in love with an Italian banker. She takes back the passion for life that had been assaulted by her husband’s Nordic high seriousness and rigidity.
Nevertheless, the experience of that love is only “told” to us. It is not part of the grim story-line of the movie.
The teacher falls in love and patiently waits out the year his girlfriend’s father demands before any decision is made about the marriage. She eventually marries someone else after the confrontation between the teacher and the minister. The narrator ends up going to war to return as a modest tailor in another town.
As a friend of mine reminded me, the teacher is the only male in the film who is not the typical, hard-core patriarch. His tenderness, however, is not enough to save him from having his plans to marry dashed.
One of the most touching love-relief scenes occurs when the minister’s young son requests his father’s permission to take care of a wounded bird. He later offers the healed bird to his father because he is “so sad” after the minister’s daughter kills the minister’s bird to avenge his cruelty. Even the minister is touched by the boy’s innocence. And yet, the boy’s fragile tenderness, we know, is not enough to ultimately change the minister’s rigidity.
I was also struck by the poignancy of the minister’s son walking on top of a bridge railing as a test to see if God wanted him to die. That was beautifully matched to the innocent questions of the doctor’s son about death when he finds out from his sister that his mother died and was not going to return.
These exceptional scenes, I believe, do offer some relief from the daily tragedies in the village. However, the stodgy, rigid, church-service ending of the film doesn’t offer much final consolation.
I realize this is a long, somewhat dense plot review. I generally skim over plots, but Haneke requires an intense close reading for me because I tend to miss so much the first time around.
And the devil’s details are so critical in being able to catch some of the film’s overarching motifs: the ancient Christian “depravity-of-man” theme so embodied in the cruel, sometimes vicious men; the apocalyptic implications embedded in the children’s behaviors as an omen of what was to happen in Nazi Germany; the tidy “secrets” in a small village that lie beneath the surface of ordinariness; the acts of revenge that humans are capable of performing if the emotional foxholes are deep enough; and, finally, the dark cosmos that contradicts the narrator’s big lie, “life in our community was God’s will, and worth living.”