Exploring the Origins of the Nazis
After an absence of over ten years, Michael Haneke returned to German cinema in 2009 with The White Ribbon. In this film, he delves into a pivotal theme in German history, though not explicitly spelled out: the origins of the Nazis and the societal support that fueled their rise; in addition to being known for his sophisticated instructional style, Haneke departures from expectations in this film. While it does show a world marked by “malice, envy, apathy, and brutality,” it also unveils a more complex reality. Surprisingly, Haneke introduces subtler characterizations, along with moments of tenderness. Jean-Claude Carrière, who assumed responsibility for transforming the original mini-series screenplay, played a crucial role in crediting this shift from Haneke’s usual style. As a co-writer for many later Buñuel films, Carrière likely influenced Haneke’s typically detached perspective. Though original, the film’s narrative structure carries the semblance of an adaptation from an obscure German novel of the early twentieth century. This artistic ventriloquy becomes clear in Haneke’s intentional emulation of Theodor Fontane, a late-nineteenth-century social realist novelist, whose influence is felt in the film’s Prussian village setting, a year before World War I.
While spanning from the local Baron and his steward to the doctor, pastor, midwife, a family of tenant farmers, and the village schoolteacher, the film’s storyline encompasses a diverse array of village inhabitants, predominantly unnamed. Notably, the schoolteacher adds a novelistic touch, unlike Haneke’s previous works. Acting as a narrator through voice-over, he gives a retrospective quality to the narrative, a first for Haneke. The narrator, voiced by Ernst Jacobi in his older version, kicks off the film, guiding us from a black screen to a view of the countryside. This voice sets up a narrative framework, expressing uncertainty about the story’s truth, relying on hearsay, and acknowledging lingering ambiguity after many years. Yet, it insists on the need to recount the strange events in their village, potentially shedding light on broader country-wide occurrences. The strange incidents in the narrative consist of a series of violent acts with hidden perpetrators. These acts involve calculated actions, like intentionally tripping the doctor’s horse, kidnapping and assaulting the Baron’s son, arson, exposing the steward’s baby to an open window, and a brutal attack on the midwife’s son, Karli, who has Down Syndrome. Simultaneously, there are occurrences within the audience’s view: the tenant farmer Felder’s son vandalizes the Baron’s cabbage field, the steward’s son pushes Sigi into the water knowingly, and the pastor’s daughter, Klara, deliberately kills her father’s cherished pet bird, acting as a ringleader among the local children.
Every revealed act, whether seen or guessed, is a way of getting back at the messed-up social system in this society. Felder’s kid is out for payback against the Baron for his mom’s death in that estate accident. The steward’s son, fueled by jealousy of the upper class and thinking that Sigi’s flute-playing mocks his and his brother’s failed attempts at making flutes from basic materials gives a snarky response. This rebellion then turns against his dad, the steward, as seen in the son’s defiance when faced with physical abuse. Even though he keeps lying about having Sigi’s flute, he boldly starts playing it right after his dad leaves, throwing down a challenge to the authority in charge. The white ribbon in the film takes on extra symbolic meanings, getting tangled up with different associations and metaphors. It shows up as the restraints tying up Martin’s hands at night, a powerful symbol of the limits imposed on natural behavior. Another form is the white bandage covering Karli’s injured eyes, serving a double purpose. First, it symbolizes society blaming one of its vulnerable members, making us think of how the Nazis treated the mentally impaired later on. Moreover, it indicates a deliberate disregard by society for its genuine nature, exposing a collective ignorance reminiscent of past atrocities.
Nazi Connections and Concentration Camp Imagery
Also, those white ribbons worn as shameful decorations on Martin and Klara’s arms hint at things to come, making connections with Nazi armbands and the badges of shame in concentration camps. But Haneke doesn’t spell out these connections outright, keeping it subtle in the film. Notably, there’s no direct mention of “Hitler” or “the Nazis” in the story. However, when the narrator discusses “things happening in this country,” it is evident that he is referring to the historical context of Germany. In interviews, Haneke emphasizes that despite these clear connections, his film doesn’t primarily focus on explicitly delving into German history. Instead, he says it has a broader purpose, suggesting that the film comments on how any oppressive system can mess with the development of its younger members. By avoiding direct references to specific historical events, Haneke takes a more nuanced approach, exploring how oppressive structures mess with people’s minds in a society.
The film doesn’t talk about fascism outright; it’s more about a bunch of kids who buy into the principles their parents are drilling into them. These ideas become the basis for how the kids judge their parents. Things hit a turning point when the kids see the gap between what’s preached and how their parents behave, and they decide to dish out some punishment. Haneke goes a step further by drawing comparisons between different historical cases, like Eichmann and Gudrun Esslin, a member of the Baader-Meinhof group and a pastor’s daughter. The film also hints at modern-day Islamic fundamentalism. Haneke’s saying that while films like The Damned or The Conformist might give us general insights into individual behavior and socio-political stuff, the real deal is in the historical details of the cinematic world. In parallel, The White Ribbon follows the same principle. Even though it doesn’t explicitly dive into fascism, it invites viewers to dig into the historical and cultural details of the world it shows. Just as people naturally gravitate towards films set in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, they also become immersed in it.
In this context, Haneke seems somewhat restrained, making an effort to avoid explicitly connecting a strict upbringing with the emergence of fascism in the nation. But others, like Marcel Reich-Ranicki, have been more direct about it. He, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, talks about the oppressive German education system in his memoirs and how it left him with a lasting fear of canes, concentration camps, and gas chambers. In The White Ribbon, strong father figures or their stand-ins enforce obedience to a controlling and conformist regime. The film carefully shows the initial interactions between adults and kids, revealing a moment series that illustrates adult and parental control. At first, the midwife scolds school kids for not greeting them properly, and Klara quickly apologizes. Then, the baroness takes control by making the tutor do a duet and ignoring her bored son, showing a clear power dynamic. As the story goes on, the pastor dishes out collective and individual punishments to his family, like withholding dinner from everyone and making Klara and Martin wear white ribbons while getting publicly caned.
Family Compliance with the System
After the pastor’s announcement, the formal bedtime goodbyes show the family going along with the system, even though it goes against what they believe. The mom’s complaining and tears while making the white ribbons highlight the family’s internal struggle, showing how the oppressive society they’re stuck in is messing with them. The film cleverly shows how adult control keeps growing, creating a world where big-shot figures shape how the younger generation acts and thinks, setting the stage for a system that mirrors the oppressive stuff leading to historical disasters. The village in the film is like a pyramid with a controlling father figure at every level. The Baron’s up top, acting all fatherly to the villagers, but it’s really about them depending on him for money. On the flip side, at the bottom, tenant farmer Felder wants the same respect and obedience, dishing out discipline like a patriarch. Even the pastor, like Felder, is called “Herr Vater” by his kids, soaking up a system that doesn’t match his class interests.
Outside the village, the same pattern goes on. While approaching the Baron’s nanny, Eva, the schoolteacher encounters another authoritative patriarch. The doctor, who seems like a victim in the film, turns out to be a psychological abuser of the midwife and physically abuses his teenage daughter. The kind schoolteacher reveals his authoritarian nature by issuing threats of punishment to the children. Haneke, going for an old-school modern approach, makes the audience get into it. The story unfolds with gaps, uncertainties, and loose ends, making viewers try to connect the pieces. Short scenes reveal who’s who and how they’re connected bit by bit. Lots of things, big and small, are left unclear on purpose. Questions pop up about Karli’s parentage, Erna’s dreams, the truth about the baroness’s affair denial, why the doctor’s and midwife’s families disappear, and most importantly, who’s behind each mystery attack. In addition to actively piecing together the intricate puzzle of the story, the deliberate ambiguity enhances the depth of the film, compelling the audience.
Mystery and Serious Themes
Haneke’s flicks (The White Ribbon and Hidden) have this common thing of having a mystery mixed in with serious themes like Nazism and French colonial guilt. But don’t get fooled by how similar they might seem. In Hidden, the enigma surrounding the videos lacks a concrete solution or logical explanation, resembling the peculiar logic often found in David Lynch’s works, Lost Highway. However, in Hidden, this riddle, particularly with the suggested connections between the sons in the final scene, is deemed by Haneke as a flaw in the structure and style. Rather than contributing to Georges’ narrative and its profound social and political themes, the mystery distracts and undermines its strength. Instead of the main characters Claudia and Sandro, it’s like leaving the audience in Antonioni’s L’avventura focused on what happened to the mysteriously gone Anna. Even though the narrator hints at a potentially unreliable storyteller in the schoolteacher, it turns into a typical postmodern touch that doesn’t go anywhere.
In The White Ribbon, the narrative holds the children responsible for the attacks altogether, but it maintains a certain level of ambiguity regarding the specifics of each action. The real deal is the collective nature of the kids’ behavior, giving off this vague but creepy sense of threat when they’re all together. They’re both victims and doers of violence, showing the messed-up stuff in the society in the film. Just like the dark note with Karli’s beaten body, the film warns about a scary future, summed up in the promise to “punish the children for the sins of their parents sins to the third and fourth generation.” This theme dives into the messed-up mix of generational blame and society falling apart in the story. The film holds significant importance in Haneke’s filmography, widely regarded as his finest work up-to-date. Its themes extend far beyond its primary emphasis. Even characters such as the pastor (who initially appears principled and authoritarian) reveal deeper layers beneath the surface. When the pastor deals with his youngest son, we see a softer side, especially in the scene where the kid gives him a caged bird as a replacement for the one his dad’s pet got killed.
In contrast to Haneke’s earlier works, The White Ribbon introduces a refined delicacy in depicting certain scenes. Moments like the doctor’s daughter Anna dealing with her young brother’s questions about death or the poignant single-shot of Felder entering the dilapidated room to mourn beside his wife’s laid-out body highlight Haneke’s artistic skill. Additionally, the film includes charming scenes portraying the schoolteacher’s hesitant courtship of Eva, revealing a humane dimension amidst societal tensions. The film’s conclusion unfolds as a frozen tableau, fading out on the villagers gathered in the church at the onset of World War I, standing on the brink of upheaval that will shatter their previous certainties. Although the external audience is aware of the grim historical developments awaiting them, the fact that the narrator and Eva are, in a sense, allowed to escape this impending darkness provides a cathartic release. This deviation from the impending historical upheaval provides a touching conclusion, granting the characters a semblance of sanctuary from the encroaching darkness on the horizon.
- Mohamedou, M. O. (2019). The lesson of ‘The White Ribbon’ for today: How tolerant societies can drift into hatred. The Conversation.
- Schiefer, K. (2009). Michael Haneke about THE WHITE RIBBON. AUSTRIAN FILMS.
- Walker, E. (2018). The White Ribbon: Hearing Symbolic Oppression and the Real in Rebellion. Hearing Haneke: The Sound Tracks of a Radical Auteur, Oxford Music/Media Series.