Das weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte

(The White Ribbon, Aus/Ger/Fra/IT - 2009)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi, Burghart Klaussner, Maria-Victoria Dragus
Genre: Drama/Crime/Mystery
Director: Michael Haneke
Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Cinematography: Christian Berger
Composer: -

The White Ribbon recounts The School Teacher’s eventual attempt to solve the mystery of the strange events that plagued his small Austrian town before the outbreak of World War 1, but anyone expecting a whodunnit, and thus an solution, will be sorely disappointed. The point of the crimes is not their resolution, which would merely provide a convenient scapegoat, but to show the chain reaction they create. This reaction is incredibly multilayered, not merely focusing on the ever increasing carnage, but also the general cause/effect relationship that touches the lives of every citizen in some way.

Michael Haneke’s stories sometimes use genre constructs to root us, to create a certain familiarity he plays with and ultimately breaks down. The White Ribbon features a voice over narration from The School Teacher (Christian Friedel) that simply reinforces the objective point of view, regularly offering scenes the teacher could not possibly have witnessed. The film seems a continuation of the mode Haneke began with his previous new film Cache. While Haneke’s earlier films sometimes offered a convenient refuge, for instance we could simply claim the problem in Funny Games was limited to a couple of psychos, even if that would entail quite an inadequate reading, the problems in Cache certainly couldn’t be limited to, and the mystery couldn’t truly be solved by, the three main characters.

In Cache, Haneke uses an intimate mystery plot of a married couple terrorized by spy videos as a springboard to examine the 1961 police massacre of Algerian protesters, a representation of the tumultous Franco majority-Arabic minority releationship that is really a microcosm for the dangerous mistrust between the Christain world and Islamic world. In The White Ribbon, Haneke again uses a mystery plot, this time much broader as it involves an entire (fictitious) Austrian town, as a springboard to examine the joyless and repressed environment of guilt, blame, and punishment that eventually led to the formation of the Nazi party and the outbreak of WWII, a universal representation of the origins of the sort of rage and vengeance that could really be attributed to being the root cause of almost any war or act of terrorism. You will not see a Nazi in The White Ribbon - in fact the tale ends in 1917 - or any other modern representation of large scale evil. However, with The White Ribbon, Haneke is expanding the unsolvable mystery because the corrupted values and empty souls of not merely of the town, but rather of the world, render the individual identities of the small scale perpetrators meaningless.

Haneke’s Austrian town is an isolated feudal society full of conventions and constraints where everyone acts polite and proper, if only because they’d get in trouble for showing their true selves. There is a major discrepancy in class, as one aristocratic baron employs everyone in the town he feels the need for until he decides to get rid of them. It’s a patriarchal society where religion theoretically brings everyone together, but in fact is responsible for rigidly enforcing a series of repressive and puritanical rules that shame everyone in their place and keep them feeling bad about themselves, their relatives, and their neighbors.

The Doctor (Rainer Bock) is not exactly a good guy, but it’s really the dynamic duo of The Baron (Ulrich Tukur) and The Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) that results in a masculine dominated environment where there is no upward mobility for anyone, no power at all for women, and no method for nurturing children the generally ignored children. The black and white, crime and punishment, nature of the societal values stunts the citizens emotional growth, preventing them from developing the capacity to care or to love. The land thus becomes a breeding ground for frustration, as the townspeople are unable to feel affection or participate in any sustainable system of attaining happiness, success, anything beyond the slavery of hopeless subsistance. Because everyone lacks time in addition to the means to nourish any relationship, there’s an insurmounting tension to life that can only be released in secret.

The courtship between the 31-year-old teacher and the 17-year-old former Baron's nanny Eva (Leonie Benesch) at first seems designed to be a break from the general unpleasantness, but is really an example of just how limited the opportunity for social interaction, much less the cultivation of love, is. The School Teacher was kind to her in her night of despair (when The Baron fired her), but they’ve basically exchanged a few words and had a dance. The basis of their “love” is that they really don’t have any sort of relationship with anyone else of the opposite sex. Especially in Eva’s case, she’s basically selecting the first available man who has shown any interest.

Much of the success of The White Ribbon lies in Michael Haneke’s unwillingness to focus on any particular townsperson, and especially his outright refusal to editorialize about the inhabitants he bounces between. Haneke’s filmic style of long static takes without implementing a score always provides a more distant and detached viewpoint that allows the viewers to examine the events in a more critical and unbiased manner. However, Funny Games was less successful because as much as Haneke wanted to blame society as a whole through their uncritical consumption of mass media, his very miniature microcosm of intruders and abducted made good and evil rather black and white regardless of what we thought of the bourgeoise family held captive.

Haneke felt the need remake of Funny Games in 2007, but since the shot for shot remake is arguably even more pointless and masturbatory than Gus Van Sant’s Psycho forgery, the film remains a product of his earlier reactionary cinema. In essence, the point of Funny Games is to make us realize the media has enabled a society that glorifies such perversion, so we will thus reconsider and reject that style of “journalism”. Haneke’s early works tend to fall into this mode. They are the cinema of alienation and rejection, hoping wrong actions will illicit enough disgust that we’ll feel the need to act properly.

Funny Games is not exactly a horror or a thriller, but it’s at least enough of a crime film that the audience reacts based upon how it both meets and frustrates our expectations. The White Ribbon is also classified as a crime film and a mystery, but it purposely chooses a much broader focus on the milieu that enabled if not encouraged the crimes rather than making any particular effort to focus on the acts themselves or the identity of the perpetrators. Yes, there’s a sort of loose framework that starts with the first cowardly act and ends with The School Teacher coming to a sort of conclusion (which we don’t really believe) on the identity of the perpetrators, but Haneke doesn’t make a spectacle of the evil he condemns in The White Ribbon like he did in Funny Games.

The town is plagued by a general malaise with malice, envy, apathy, and brutality being the defining characteristics of the very fabric of the community. In such an environment, there is improper or dubious conduct running rampant, much of which doesn’t actually relate to the mysterious crimes that are known to be plaguing the community. In essense, there are two sorts of crimes going on, those the community has to deal with because everyone is familiar with them such as The Doctor being thrown from his horse due to someone setting a trip wire and those that fail to disrupt the wholesome moral fiber of the community because they are kept private such as an incestual.

In many senses, the problem in the village is that they all have that desire to make people publicly pay for their sins. Religion may pay lip service to forgiveness, but the pastor only imbues the townspeople with guilt, chastising the children at every opportunity rather than giving them any opportunity to experience and express, to learn and grow.

The title refers to a kind of variation of the scarlet letter, where the offending children of the pastor must wear the embarrassing mark so everyone knows they were bad. Technically, the white is a representation of the sort of purity and innocence they should strive to regain, but while the ribbon may state they are in the process of reclaiming their virtue, there seems to be no real forgiveness, only punishment, if not malicious retribution.

Everyone has their own theory about the known crims which no one can prove, so at best they begin to cast dispersion on each other, and before long someone takes things a step further. Believing no wrong must go unpunished, they extract their pound of flesh from whomever may be responsible, or even whoever is related to whoever may be responsible since they are guilty by mutual gene pool, setting off a chain reaction that quickly spirals the always precarious balance of a single employer town out of control.

The random acts of senseless violence are almost purely kept to our imagination. It’s not so much that Haneke doesn’t depict them, as we do briefly see the doctor fall off his horse and a teen destroy a cabbage field, but these aren’t set pieces and there isn’t any build up to or suspense/tension placed upon their occurrence. They are simply a couple of incidents that disrupt the supposedly peaceful village. To the extent the film functions as a genre piece, which is not a very large one, our observance of the questionable behavior of everyone in the community cause us to question whether or not they were the ones who are behind the string of publicized wrongdoings. That’s the basic function of the narrative, to get the audience to question not just the act and identity, but the broader scope. The big picture is that while there will always be misdeeds, the way the community reacts to them, the behavior they instill in their children, is perhaps the determining factor in whether things will ever be any different. The roots of conflict lie not in a particular ideology, but in the corruption of our values and the emptiness in our souls.

By moving between the entire village without providing any shading of the characters to express their intentions or general alignment, we begin to notice certain common traits. We see that everyone is reserved, then notice they are more than a bit rigid, and ultimately come to the fact that their repression has to have releases. We begin to ask ourselves if that’s the reason behind certain dubious actions, but it’s never as simply as that alone because that’s too easy, and just plain condescending.

One aspect of Michael Haneke’s cinema that has been consistently successful is his stance against narrative dictatorship. Haneke has always gone in the direction that will allow for multiple interpretations of his work. It’s not about being arcane or surreal, about confusing or jumbling the brain, but instead one of his methods of articulating his distrust for the media. This is never more true than in Cache, where a surveilance camera is proven to not deliver the truth. The White Ribbon continues along this line, but rather than characters believing wholeheartedly that they know what happened only to be shown they in fact know very little, the narrator never claims any particular authority and is missing many of the details. Haneke wouldn’t be lame enough to force this conclusion upon us, but certainly one thing that should come to mind in the end is that when all is said and done, we have nothing more than one of a hundred versions of the “truth”.

The White Ribbon is less purely an art film than 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, but the series of episodes and moments at least theoretically challenges the audience to both understand the inherent manipulation in brief clips while still attaching their own psychology and morality to the characters despite this knowledge that they are being denied the necessary facts. The point Haneke has been trying to reach is a state of awareness where the viewer will view critically by separating the footage from the idea it’s inherenty truth and take responsibility for participating in the dubious or immoral activities depicted.

Although The Schoolteacher is a benevolent character who ultimately shows enough concern to conduct his own investigation, the most interesting aspect of his voiceover is it’s total lack of emotion. This is at least seemingly not someone riddled with shame and guilt, horrified that such acts took place under his watch; it’s someone engaging in newspaper style reportage. It’s just the “facts”.

Since Haneke disdanes the media, he always makes a lot of points that run counter not only to their supposed purpose, but to that of filmmakers seeking morality. One of the strartling points of The White Ribbon is just how cribbled the village becomes through the knowledge their illusions are just that. As the cruel acts become serial, every action or inaction to counterbalance them results in fear or helplessness. Ultimately, the only answer for the characters seems to be fleeing, but we know that will not be of any long term benefit because the seed has already been planted in these German youths, and evil cannot simply be uprooted like a pesky weed. The answer for the audience seems more important. We have no say in the film, there’s no one to believe in, support, or really have any faith in, which prompts us to either do the easy thing and simply reject the film and it’s unpleasantness or the hard thing and try to combat these situations when they occur in our own lives.

Though Haneke is a moralist, there’s a critical difference between him and most moral filmmakers. Haneke doesn’t want to tell us how to act, he wants to show us ourselves, hoping that will cause us to deliberate upon the material until we come up with our own ideas, actions, solutions. His success as a filmmaker won’t lie in how we react to his specifics, but rather if we’ll first recognize the same traits and behaviors in ourselves and those around us, and secondly do something positive to alter them.


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