PRINT January 2010


Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon

A BOY WANDERS THE RUINS of bombed-out Berlin, denied solace and sustenance at every turn. Coached to “let the weak disappear” by a pedophiliac black marketeer, a kind of Nazi Erlking who was once his schoolteacher, the child poisons his ailing father and then kills himself, less out of contrition than despair. Young Edmund, who responds to a malign postwar world by leaping to his death, is the protagonist of Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948), long on the list of Michael Haneke’s ten favorite films. Characteristically, the Austrian master chose neither Rome, Open City (1945) nor Paisà (1946), the earlier, more celebrated entries in Rossellini’s trio of films about World War II, but settled instead on the trilogy’s terse, bleak, and relatively unknown conclusion. Void of its predecessors’ palliatives (humor, Italian regionalist color, a sense of humanist solidarity), the starkly pessimistic Zero clearly suits Haneke’s dire vision. Just as Rossellini employed a child’s viewpoint to investigate the reasons everyday Germans succumbed to what he called “false morality, the very essence of Nazism,” Haneke explores in his latest film, The White Ribbon, an etiology of German fascism that centers on children—the film’s subtitle, “A German Children’s Tale,” appears ominously on-screen in alte deutsche Schrift, the Old German script used up until World War II—albeit youngsters considerably less innocent than Edmund.

Haneke’s year zero is 1913–14, his setting far from Berlin: a farming village in northern Germany, where a baron oversees the tenant farmers and Polish guest help who work his vast tracts of land. The rustic locale, with its Millet-like harvesters and picturesque landscapes—fields of molten grain or sifting snow, punctuated by dark stanchions of birch and willow—conjures the removed and unbesmirched world of the pastoral. But as frequently as the director names characters Eva or Evi, or evokes an idyll isolated by geography or time—the lake house in Funny Games (1997), the “Arcadia” of the first half of Lemmings (1979)—there is little possibility of the prelapsarian in Haneke’s universe. Every Eden is only seeming. “Careful, it’s all rotten,” someone warns early in The White Ribbon about a decayed floor that has caused a woman’s death, but he could, in truth, be talking about the entire town.

An anti-Heimat film in which the apparently serene agrarian setting masks evil intent, White Ribbon opens with a potentially fatal “accident,” one of many accumulated by film’s end, which escalate in violence and depravity. Defilement and maiming rather than death appear the aim of the crimes, which are often perpetrated on children—the baron’s angelic blond son, Sigi, is twice attacked—and seem like symbolic reenactments of the punishments inflicted by the film’s patriarchs upon their suffering offspring. These harsh, paper-faced disciplinarians include the three men who, along with the baron, constitute the village power structure: the doctor, the film’s first victim; the pastor; and the land steward. An allegory about the nascence of Nazism, White Ribbon is also a critique of a patriarchal class system in which women are victims and protectors, the men almost invariably righteous in their stern propagation of privilege and abuse. The film’s children are forever being rebuked, verbally and physically. Slapped, whipped, caned, kicked, beaten, and bound, they respond to a punitive universe by repeatedly excusing themselves, imploring forgiveness. (It has rarely been remarked how often Haneke’s characters beg pardon. “I’m sorry, so sorry, please accept my apology” go the lyrics of the Brenda Lee song prominently featured in Lemmings; “You see, I’m apologizing again,” a minister later laughs to the suicidal woman he is counseling.) The children’s obsessive self-exculpation in White Ribbon conceals a deeper wish, for sadistic retribution against the mean, death-filled world of their parents. “They’re always at a difficult age,” Frau Wagner observes about the children, and she has no idea how right she is.

“The Middle Ages are over!” the priest in Lemmings cries, but Haneke’s Everyman characters often act as if they were hewn from a medieval mystery play, the filmmaker’s symbolism as stark as the tropes of those primitive liturgies. The White Ribbon establishes a tone of modernist ambiguity at the outset, in which the film’s narrator—a schoolteacher and rare decent soul—emphasizes uncertainty, obscurity in the tale he is about to recount. And Haneke is careful to leave some mysteries unresolved at the end, relying on village gossip to muse on enigmas of incident and motive. Much, though, is spelled out, and those who have criticized the director as an overexplainer, a psychological literalist and maestro of manipulation, will find considerable evidence here: The whiteness of the eponymous ribbon, the pastor tells his son before binding the boy’s hands to his bed to prevent masturbation, was once a sign of purity and innocence, but is now an emblem of baseness. Sexual disgust and repression, combined with class resentment and religious subjection, are central to Haneke’s depiction of incipient fascism, and some of his strongest writing is reserved for the pastor’s admonitions about the abuse of the boy’s “finest nerves,” invoking the “sacred barriers” God has placed around his groin; and for the doctor’s torrent of revulsion at the body and being of Frau Wagner, his long-enduring workmate, mistress, and nanny. The austere Protestant atmosphere, in which chastity is won by chastisement, may recall Bergman and Dreyer, but Haneke’s sense of iniquity remains singularly nasty. “One grows sentimental when in pain,” the vicious physician avers, but his self-hatred and misogyny trump any nobler emotion.

The White Ribbon, though infinitely more classical than Haneke’s previous films and shorn of his neo-Brechtian shock tactics, remains one of the director’s closed systems, in which any hard-won ambiguity submits to strictly managed meaning. Vigilance is required, for instance, to keep straight the households of the pastor, doctor, and steward, so abruptly does Haneke elide their symmetrical arenas of sexual abuse and violent castigation—especially those of the first two, the men who respectively tend to the health of the spirit and the body but are themselves desperately afflicted. Haneke twice juxtaposes their realms to make the point: The pastor’s warning against onanism bluntly cuts to the doctor fucking Frau Wagner; and a sequence in which the doctor molests his teenage daughter, as he has done for years, tellingly transits into another, in which the pastor’s similarly blond, adolescent girl takes revenge on her father for ostracizing her in Bible class. (Her dispatch of his pet bird, Peepsie, skewered with scissors and left in a mock crucifixion on his desk, recalls a child’s smothering of a canary as an act of antiparental revenge in Lemmings. Animals seem as much a sacrifice to human cruelty in Haneke’s cinema as they are in that of his hero, Robert Bresson.)

Haneke’s world rarely divides into the damaging and the damaged; most of his characters are both. The director is never more precise than in detailing how harm becomes cyclic, violence or humiliation breeding ever greater trauma. (The second half of Lemmings is titled “Injuries” and follows an “Arcadia” of suicide, incest, crippling, mass vandalism, and brutally self-administered abortion.) The death of a tenant farmer’s wife in White Ribbon—the one who falls through the rotten sawmill floor—feeds her son’s seething sense of injustice and leads first to his mad scything of the baron’s cabbage field and, in turn, to the suicide of his father. And Haneke clearly intends the acts of abasement and torture that intensify in the course of the film to prefigure Nazism. The “horror and perplexity” that roil beneath the village’s annual harvest festival, the atmosphere of “malice, envy, apathy, and brutality” that the baroness decries, are for Haneke inchoate markers of Germany’s future calamity. (In the tale of the baron’s wanting wife, Haneke lapses into northern romanticism, positing Italy as liberating, sensual, child-loving.) The maiming of Frau Wagner’s disabled boy, Karli, becomes, in this overly portentous schema, an act of proto-eugenics, much as Edmund’s elimination of his father in Germany Year Zero signifies the postwar recurrence of that Nazi program.

Though White Ribbon towered over the competition at Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or, some have questioned Haneke’s fastening on sexual repression as a symptom of Nazism, citing historians who find the connection specious or misguided. (The film’s malice is actually more wanton and ubiquitous, as in the seeping cruelty of Clouzot’s Le Corbeau [1943] or Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest [1951].) Despite its coercive single-mindedness, White Ribbon is a triumph of tonal control, acted with uniform intensity and photographed with hallucinatory force. Filmed in color and digitally transferred to black-and-white, with effects added—the opening shot of doctor and horse tripping on a wire gets the film off to a CGI-seeming false note—White Ribbon appears fashioned from obsidian and ash, so dense are its contrasts. The crisp, articulating light defines palpable depth of field and texture—a wire biting into the blistered bark of a birch tree; the delicate lace coverlet placed on a dead woman’s face; the roughly woven bandages wound around Karli’s injured eyes; snow aswirl against ancient stone walls. Certain figure-in-landscape compositions evoke Caspar David Friedrich, but, perhaps unavoidably for any film set in this time and place, August Sander’s photographs provide the obvious antecedents for Haneke’s images and character types, from the Jack Elam visage of a walleyed tenant farmer to the anxious, uncomprehending look of the doctor’s beatific son as his older sister explains the inevitability of death.

In Haneke, art coincides with anguish. The Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite no. 5 offers a leitmotif of painful memory in Lemmings, much as Schubert’s late sonatas become signifiers of cultural repression in The Piano Teacher (2001). The flute and piano duet (Schubert again) played by baroness and tutor and the Martin Luther chorale glowingly sung by the village’s youth in The White Ribbon bring one back to the blasted environs of Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero, in which art offers no succor for Edmund: A gramophone plays not music but Hitler’s speeches; the burst of Handel on a church organ that precedes the boy’s leap manages only to distract him momentarily from his suicidal task. “Beauty has to suffer,” the sententious doctor in White Ribbon insists, and, indeed, as Haneke and Rossellini both recognize, art rarely obviates agony.

The White Ribbon is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles. A DVD box set of Roberto Rossellini’s war trilogy, including Germany Year Zero, is being released this month by Criterion.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.