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Set in a small German village on the eve of the first world war, The White Ribbon follows the thread of a series of mysteries – the deliberate felling of the village doctor from his horse by a tripwire; the torture of the child son of the village baron; the kidnap and torture of a young disabled boy; and a barn burnt to the ground. These events are devices to reveal the slow, everyday, regimented violence and power relations in feudal pre-war Germany that is the real story. For the film’s director and writer, Michael Haneke, the narrative serves to uncover ‘truths’ and universal themes within the overall political context.
Many reviewers have remarked on Haneke’s ‘darkness’ in his exploration of themes of guilt, shame and repression, but they say very little about the real social grist of his craft – power and power relations. Haneke is an anthropologist of social and political conflict. He has said: ‘If there was one title that could be applied to all my films, it would be “Civil War” – not necessarily civil war in the way we know it, but the daily war that goes on between us all. All the big wars can be traced back to all these small ones between all of us.’
Haneke’s background in television and theatre comes through in his use of confined spaces for elaborating character and plot – the living room, the bedroom, the kitchen. His meditative, unbroken long-shots create an immediacy and natural quality that carefully allows for the talent of his actors to evolve the violence and tenderness within human relationships before us in real-time.
One uninterrupted shot is masterful. It shows the young boy Adolf (played immaculately by Levin Henning) leaving the room where he and his siblings have been summoned for punishment and walking past us into another, then returning – the whip he has been forced to bring only visible at the last moment – before disappearing behind a closed door upon which the camera focuses, plainly, starkly, as one waits and waits for the inevitable sound of pain inflicted. The spectator is empowered throughout the film – a self-stated aim of Haneke’s work – by being allowed to follow, peering from behind the backs of the main protagonists, past the napes of their necks, and to enter, to wait and to witness the most intimate glimpses of violence and vulnerability in the characters’ lives.
The intertwined threads of the banality of evil and degradation of human life fuelled by inequality run through the film. From the death of a poor family’s mother due to the profiteering of her landlord, to the suicide walked in upon with a barn door opening and shutting like an eyelid, to the pre-school boy’s wide-eyed walk-in on his father zipping up his flies before his tear-stained daughter – the witnesses are children, the victims are children and the perpetrators become children. Their indoctrination with violence through powerlessness is an explosive combination that can lead to the belief in ‘easy answers’ for future empowerment such as those supplied by Nazi ideology.
Haneke says of his film: ‘I want to show how all sorts of suppression can make you open to an idea when someone comes along and says “I can save you”. It’s like the story of the Pied Piper … It’s the war that takes place between people that makes them receptive to such ideologies. The civil war between groups of people.’
In the case of The White Ribbon the war is between men with status and women deprived of it; between land-owning feudal barons and a peasant class, including lumpen Polish migrant labourers, in which one can glimpse a future subjugation as the Slav slave race; and between authoritarian religion-propped parents and their captive children – the children being the canvas upon which to paint and imprint the authoritarianism and repression that literally (re)create the conditions for the (re)generation of fascism.
Haneke’s study covers both the economic and social levers and confines of power, exploring both the home and the village, the private and the public, as mutually reinforcing spheres of influence.
Behind closed doors, there are the children with no refuge, reliant upon and dominated by their parents, who wield supreme power over them – regimenting their behaviour with violence and restraint, from whippings and beatings to being tied up in bed, to being marked with the film’s quintessential trope – the white ribbon. In Germany, das weisse band was originally designed as a nonviolent form of discipline for children, being tied to the arms of those being punished. For Haneke it is the key to revealing that the definitions and boundaries between physical and non-physical violence are false; that the non-physical is as hurtful, destructive and terrorising as the physical, and is often connected, somewhere along the emotional line, with brute force.
The simplicity of the band worn by the two children of the priest (Burghart Klausner) in the church choir, to discipline them back to an innocence that is constantly undermined, reveals the ultimate contradiction. This is that the authoritarian imposition of ‘innocence’ has corrupted them and they have come to take on the language of their oppressors – physical and emotional violence – as a group outside the confines of the home.
When confronted with the truth of the children’s emerging power games, their father closes ranks and defends the indefensible – in the name of the white band he instituted, the ideology of innocence is supreme. We see that the white band and the identity or ‘social peace’ it is attempting to impose is as violent as the whip or gun or the idea of white supremacy. Its imposition is an act of civil war.
In an earlier film, Cache (2005), the themes of violence upholding social peace are similar. Here Haneke shows the concealed violence of middle-class Parisian social peace played out through the lives of a couple in denial of their agency in the reproduction of France’s colonial and racist legacy in Algeria. The scene of violent television images from Palestine and Iraq beaming between Auteil and Binoche, as they argue in their living room about who it is that is sending them close-ups of their own life on videotape, reveals that the real violence is in their class and the oblivious white-skin privilege of their lives, which are built upon the colonial violence going on in the background. The civil war is in the home.
Haneke is also adept at mapping gender power dynamics. The scene between the doctor (Rainer Bock) and his flush-faced live-in lover (Susanne Lothar) after rough sex behind the dinner table, in which she tentatively asks him if he missed her, opens up an ambivalent power game in which the doctor holds all the cards. ‘You’re doubting yourself again,’ he pathologises her, only for her insecurities to be confirmed later when he crushes her blow by blow with calm and casual verbal violence. The civil war is between the man empowered by an entire patriarchal society behind him and a status-less woman.
Haneke uses the innocence of the fledgling romance between Eva (Leonie Benesch) and the teacher (Christian Friedel) to underscore the depth of the abuse in the village and the social rules it shatters. With its blushes and awkward silences and chivalrously-avoided inappropriate situations – such as a picnic by the lake – the courting between Eva and the narrator is the only real innocence in the film.
Haneke is an implicitly political film-maker, and his films are about us. The White Ribbon is an example of anthropological drama that it is to be hoped will open the door for similar, unflinching examinations of human power and control. If Haneke defines his film as being about ‘the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature’, then those origins are in the inequalities, abuses and hierarchies of power, in private and public, locally and globally.