Michael Haneke’s critically-acclaimed The White Ribbon, which was released on DVD yesterday, is a chilling look behind the apparently normal façade of a small north German village in the lead-up to the First World War.
Narrated by one of the most sympathetic characters, the schoolteacher, when he has become an old man, the film shows us brutal events, some apparently perpetrated by children, but gives us very few answers as to why they have happened. The schoolteacher narrator supposes, with hindsight, that this generation of children were displaying their capability for cruelty before growing up to become the Nazi generation.
Filmed in black and white, making the setting feel even more removed in time from our own, The White Ribbon is a film that shows but rarely tells. Children are beaten by their parents, by people who are never caught, daughters are sexually abused by their fathers and women have to submit to the power of their husbands or fathers. The pastor, preaches his puritanical brand of Protestantism, as symbolised by the white ribbon he would tie around his children’s arms, to remind them to be good. However, he rules his household with an iron fist, causing his children to rebel in the most extreme ways.
The measured pace and the warm narration make the instances of abuse and violence all the more shocking when they appear. When the pastor calls his son in for a caning, the camera stays out in the empty corridor, nervously watching the door as we hear the screams of pain from within. Karli, the midwife’s son who has Down’s Syndrome (and most likely the village doctor’s illegitimate child) is attacked so viciously that he is almost blinded. The farmer hangs himself and when a boy finds him, the camera stays still behind him, sharing his shock at this discovery. the doctor’s small son walks in on him with his hands up his daughter’s nightdress in the middle of the night; heartbreakingly, she covers for him, talking about how her ears have needed to be re-pierced after the holes closed up.
The schoolteacher’s narrations does not necessarily give us the answer to who committed each of these crimes, or even how he knew about such private moments, such as the doctor and his daughter in the night, or the doctor’s cruelty towards the devoted midwife, who has acted as a stand-in wife since his own died. What emerges is a portrait of a rural, isolated place, where oppression keeps people in line, and there is no outlet for destructive feelings, and very little opportunity for escape. Only the Baron’s wife has the power to leave him for a man she met in Italy – the other women have to depend upon men to survive, and so must put up with whatever treatment they are given.
The only relief from the bleakness comes in the love story between the schoolteacher and his future wife, Eva, who arrives in the village at the age of 17, to be a nanny to the Baron’s children. When she rides in on her bike about half an hour into the film, and meets the schoolteacher, it is the first instance of smiling and laughter in the film so far. Neither of them complete escape pain or hardship throughout the film, but they seem set apart from the action, actually enjoying life, as opposed to enduring it. Without them, the film would be much harder to stomach.
There are no real answers handed to us at the end. The schoolteacher goes to the pastor with his theory of who is behind some of the crimes, and is threatened for daring to say that the pastor’s children could have had something to do with it. Coming from a man who has treated his children with strict coldness, his reaction to the schoolteacher shows that he is protecting the children only to stop his own actions from being scrutinised.
The White Ribbon is not an easy watch; in its refusal to pinpoint the blame on anyone, it puts the uncomfortable burden of judgement upon the viewer.
The White Ribbon (2009, Artificial Eye, 15) is out on DVD now