A Cold and Distant Mirror
A review of The White Ribbon (produced by Canal+ and Wega Film; written and directed by Michael Haneke; distributed by Sony Pictures Classics).
German director Michael Haneke loves to sneer at his middle-class patrons. In Funny Games (1997, remade in the United States in 2007) and Caché (2005), his affluent characters are shown to be at once odious and craven. In his latest effort, The White Ribbon, we discover they’re natural Nazis too. And for this enlightenment, Haneke has been honored by bourgeois saps around the world, including the saps at that most bourgeois of redoubts, the Golden Globes, who have hailed Ribbon as 2009’s best foreign film.
Haneke’s thesis is that fascism took hold in 20th-century Germany because the nation’s seemingly respectable citizenry tolerated child abuse, female subjugation, and sexual repression—especially sexual repression. To make his case, he takes us back to 1913 and dramatizes a series of lurid fictional events besetting Eichwald, a farming village in northern Germany. We are to understand the hamlet was feverish with perversity and malcontent on the eve of World War I.
The narrative is told through the eyes of a village schoolteacher. “I’m not sure if the story I’m about to tell you corresponds to what actually took place,” he begins. “I can only remember it dimly. I know a lot of the events only through hearsay.” This is a strange way to begin his account, especially since he also insists that, whatever the events were, they unquestionably contributed to Germany’s self-destructive course in the years following—a flight of deductive reasoning worthy of the schoolmaster’s supremely speculative countryman, Georg Hegel.
Once the teacher has put forth his foggy claim, we’re shown Eichwald artfully rendered by Haneke’s luminous black-and-white cinematography—clearly the best aspect of his film. He has revealed in interviews that he shot in color and then drained the film stock of its hues to give his story an air of remoteness in time. This certainly works, but it seems an odd choice given that he unmistakably wants his narrative to affect our thinking about the present. Then again, perhaps not. There are indications that he doesn’t want us to think too closely about actual history. His story is not a recreation of an historical moment but the ideological deployment of a useful example.
Eichwald is presented as a once-quiet feudal community presided over by an emotionally disengaged baron content to let the villagers fulfill their duties under the guidance of his steward. Then suddenly, the village is plunged into confusion and recrimination by a series of odd accidents and crimes, beginning with the local doctor being thrown from his saddle when his horse stumbles on a nearly invisible wire that someone has strung across the path to his home. Shortly afterward, a woman falls to her death through the rotten floor planks in the baron’s sawmill. Then someone abducts the baron’s four-year-old son. The boy is rescued, but only after he’s been beaten and hung upside down from a barn rafter. Someone leaves a nursery window open, perilously exposing an infant to the frigid night air. A suspicious fire burns down the baron’s barn. These and other untoward incidents set the community into an orgy of suspicion. Who is responsible? Haneke never answers this question definitively. Instead, he arranges matters so that we’re led to believe the village children are clandestinely striking back at the adults for routinely oppressing them. As we slowly discover, these adults—nearly every one a hypocritical monster—deserve what they get.
Take the doctor. He seems to be a respectable widower, but it turns out that he is given to satisfying his sexual needs with his devoted housekeeper. Disgusted with himself for succumbing to his desires, he makes the poor woman pay for her efforts to please him. After their joyless trysts, he treats her with undisguised contempt. Meanwhile, he’s perfectly at his manly ease regularly molesting his 14-year-old daughter.
A different kind of abuse is taking place in another part of town. The village’s Lutheran pastor rules his home with severe propriety. When his children fail to live up to his standards, he insists they wear white ribbons on their arms to remind them of the innocence they have lost. Having become suspicious of his 12-year-old son, he interrogates the boy regarding masturbation. After playing dumb for several agonizing and thoroughly humiliating minutes, the boy tearfully admits that, yes, he’s a wanker. His father takes the obvious measure, tying the boy’s hands to the bed rails at night to defend him against the tempter. Then there’s the baron’s steward, who keeps his kids in bounds by beating them to the floor and kicking them vigorously—despite the shrill pleas of his wife.
We are made to feel it’s pointless to worry about which child did what, since they all suffer from such ghastly parenting. It’s enough to know the repressed, deeply unhappy parents have so deformed their offspring that the kids will return the favor by secretly attacking them. They’re all sadistic Nazis in waiting.
For people of Haneke’s persuasion, repression is always the primary explanation for human iniquity. They take it as axiomatic that all societal ills spring from frost-bound loins. But this logic can hardly explain the horrors that happened in Russia, where, shortly after the events depicted in Haneke’s film, the Bolsheviks strove to inaugurate a regime in which sexual repression would be swept into history’s famous dustbin. Marriage was to be revamped, if not eliminated, and men and women would be free to disport themselves as they saw fit. Should children follow in the train of such activities, they would be provided for by the understanding state. The argument among not a few red visionaries ran thus: If folks were freed from the bourgeois trammels of romantic courtship, they would satisfy their sexual needs intelligently. Best of all, relieved of their sexual tensions, people would become better workers. No more would they waste time and emotional energy mooning over unattainable loved ones. They would couple unsentimentally with whomever was at hand and be fresh for the factory or office the next day. What a glorious future lay ahead for a populace liberated from sexual repression!
Unfortunately things didn’t work out quite like that. I wonder if Haneke will ever come to dramatize this moment in history. It certainly seems more relevant to our time than the distant mirror he has held up in this film.
This article first appeared in the March 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.