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The White Ribbon (2009) – The Challenge of Empathy

November 18, 2009

To understand the films of Michael Haneke, one must first understand his deep ambivalence towards the themes and techniques of genre film-making.  In The Time of The Wolf (2003) it was the post-apocalyptic.  In Hidden (2005) it was the mystery.  In Funny Games (1997) it was the slasher.  All of these films would happily fit within the genre canons that inspired them were it not for Haneke’s almost visceral reaction against the cosily self-indulgent safety of genre.

To go and see a genre film is to arrive at the cinema with a certain set of expectations.  The purchase of the ticket is a contract : Scare me.  Thrill me.  Entertain me.  Move me.  We know what we want and we happily pay to receive it.

Haneke is a filmmaker who refuses all such contractual relationships.  He uses the methods of genre to engineer not the effects that audiences have been conditioned to expect, but rather something different.  Something far more subversive.  For example, in both versions of Funny Games, the story of a family’s torture and murder allows the filmmaker to challenge his audience’s desire to watch such atrocities.  At one point, Haneke allows one of his characters to escape their fate only for the murderer to pick up a remote control and rewind the film in order to foil the escape.  Audiences are to be denied the consolations of genre even if it means that the fourth wall must be shattered in the process.  The same is true of Hidden.  Haneke apes the mystery so effectively that the audience begins to tie itself in knots, picking over clues scattered throughout the narrative as to the identity of the stalker.  However, Haneke refuses to resolve this question, leaving instead the methods, motivations and identity of the stalker unanswered.  Soon the question changes from “who is doing this to the character?” to “what has the character done to deserve this?”.  The main character begins to pick over his past until he eventually uncovers some terrible secret.  A secret that might not have caused the film’s goings on but which could plausibly inspire them.  This is the whodunit not as a form of palliative reassurance that no crime will go unpunished.  Instead Hidden uses the themes and movements of the mystery genre to imply universal guilt, not only in its characters but in its audience.  Are you, the film seems to ask, really innocent?

Das Weisse Band – Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte
sees Haneke return to the same hostile and yet pragmatic relationship with genre themes and images to request of us a leap of empathy and understanding.

Film Poster

The White Ribbon is set in a village in Northern Germany prior to the outbreak of the first world war.  Very much an ensemble piece, the film moves throughout the village exploring the lives of different villagers from all levels of society.  However, the apparent tranquility of the village is soon smashed by a series of terrible crimes.  Crimes that raise tensions and suspicions amongst the villagers.   As the crimes become more sadistic, the identity of the person or persons responsible remains unclear and it soon becomes apparent that The White Ribbon is not a film concerned with who is responsible for the crimes or what it is that individually motivated them.  Instead, the focus of the film is on village itself and the sense of unbearable and suffocating claustrophobia that not only permeates every aspect of village life, but which also seems to have given birth to the very brutality and sadism that now pits villager against villager.

Haneke identifies four distinct sources for the feeling of dread that enshrouds the village :

Firstly, the class structure.  The village’s economy and social order are dominated by the local Baron (Ulrich Takur).  An ill-tempered and taciturn man who is not popular but whose wealth affords him unparalleled influence over the lives of the villagers.  Early on, we are told that a woman has died in an industrial accident following the decision to have her work in a barn with rotted-out flooring implying that the baron’s decisions have life and death consequences.  He can also destroy burgeoning relationships by summarily dismissing members of his household staff and he can plunge local families into poverty by denying them estate work during the harvest.  Indeed, the only time the village seems to be happy is during a party held by the baron to thank the villagers for harvesting his crops.  It is as though he makes the emotional weather.

Secondly, the architecture.  The village is made up of wooden houses with small rooms.  The rooms are invariably filled with Victorian clutter and chintz.  Walls are covered in paintings, hunting trophies and cases of dead insects.  Shelves are filled with huge leather-bound books.  Sideboards and mantel-pieces are incrusted with knick-knacks and lanterns.  Windows are covered with lace curtains and shutters.  The world of the villagers feels dusty and intensely fragile.  There is nowhere to stand, nowhere to sit, nowhere to breathe!  In one sequence a young couple attempt to speak despite not having seen each other for months but they are accompanied by the rest of the young woman’s siblings, who sit right by them whispering to each other.  In another sequence, we see a young boy fetching the whip that will be used to beat him.  Haneke shows him carefully opening and shutting doors as he moves through the house.  This is an environment where the very layout of the houses seems designed to oppress, to control and to coop up.

Thirdly, etiquette.  The inhabitants of the village are intensely aware of where they stand on the social pecking order. In fact, most of the film’s characters are referred to simply by their job title or position.  A family of farmers are even called “Felder”, those who work the fields.  Such a rigid hierarchy and set of social rules allows no room for individuality or self-expression.  When a farm hand comes to believe that the Baron is responsible for the death of his mother, he waits until the harvest and then takes his scythe to the baron’s cabbage crop.  He does this because there is a saying that, should the Baron not give the peasants their due, they will attack his cabbage crop.  Even the acts of revenge are intensely structured and mannered.  The crushing demands of etiquette can also be felt in the courtship of the Schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) and the former governess Eva (Leonie Benesch).  The pair share real chemistry and they fall for each other almost on first sight, and yet Eva is forever being reminded by the schoolteacher that she should not call him “sir”.  Indeed, the pair’s courtship is at times excruciating to watch as both parties are incredibly shy and eager not to appear too forward or in any way rude.  When Eva’s father decides that the pair should live apart for a year prior to becoming engaged, they agree and do not even think of eloping.

Fourthly, sexuality. The village is full of children and yet what sexuality there is is intensely controlled and suppressed.  For example, when a teenage boy admits to masturbating, his father reacts by tying his hands to the bed every night.  Similarly, when the schoolteacher suggests to Eva that they might picnic by the lake, Eva is filled with such dread at the thought of sex that all she can do is beg the schoolteacher to turn the carriage around.  What sexuality there is is illicit and sordid such as in the case of the doctor (Rainer Bock) who fucks his house-keeper while fully clothed and then fingers his daughter in his surgery.

Paying homage to parents

While the film roams around the village, it is inside the house of the Pastor (Burghart Klaußner) that Haneke makes the effects of his pressures most explicit.  The Pastor has a large gaggle of incredibly polite and yet somehow sinister children.  The Pastor is a horrific martinet of a man who brutalises and terrifies his children from behind the veneer of piety and parental responsibility.  He beats his children, forces them to wear ribbons as reminders of their purity and ties them to the bed in order to stop them masturbating.  His idea of a Christmas gift is to ‘forgive’ his children for some minor indiscretions that took place during the summer.  The fact that Haneke personalises the village’s authoritarianism in the relationship between the Pastor and his children has lead some critics to see the children as somehow central to the film.  Indeed, some critics have even gone so far as to draw comparisons between Haneke’s sinister blonde-haired clique and that of German director Wolf Rilla who adapted John Wyndham’s science fiction novel The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) as The Village of the Damned (1960).  However, this is both to misunderstand Wyndham and Haneke.

Cover of the Midwich Cuckoos

The Midwich Cuckoos is about the gulf between generations.  Throughout the book, Wyndham makes references to other attempts by the aliens to set up a similar experiments on the Earth.  All other experiments fail because, when confronted with the alien children, most non-British cultures react with fear and violence.  It is only British parents who are liberal enough to put up with bringing up inhuman monsters.  If anything, The Midwich Cuckoos is an argument for a more hands-on approach to child-rearing.  An approach that leaves no room for the subversion of innocence by sinister ideological forces.  By contrast, the children of The White Ribbon are the embodiment of best practice when it comes to child rearing.  They are brutal and sadistic because they have been brought up to be that way.  The Pastor’s children are not responsible for the evils of the town, rather they are victims of the evils’ true causes, the rigid social hierarchies.  In fact, Haneke even goes out of his way to provide the children with alibis, ensuring that all the children are in their beds when the barn burns to the ground and accompanying one of the crimes with a bible verse that would have been far beyond the knowledge of a bunch of children who had not even had their confirmation yet.

Which of these creatures is the least free?

The White Ribbon is a film about the roots of social authoritarianism and how a willingness to use horrifying and transgressive forms of violence can happily coexist with a climate of complete emotional and psychological suppression.  Towards the end of the film, the First World War breaks out and the narrating Schoolteacher welcomes it almost as a blessing.  In a society where all natural urges are to be suppressed or perverted, intense violence not only becomes acceptable, it becomes socially desirable.  Indeed, Haneke’s decision to refuse his audience the catharsis that can be had by watching violence or seeing the guilty punished is almost a social experiment in itself.  The film does a wonderful job of recreating the sense of claustrophobia and frustration felt by the characters.  The White Ribbon is best understood as an exercise in empathy. Given the right kind of up-bringing and the right kind of society might we too not yearn for the visceral release of violence?  The thrill of brutalising someone weaker than ourselves?  The feelings of power that come with retribution and punishment?  Haneke rather thinks that we might and it is as hard as ever to disagree with him.

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