The White Ribbon (2009)

Dir. Michael Haneke. Starring Burghart Klaußner, Christian Friedel, Susanne Lothar

There’s a scene fairly early in The White Ribbon where the schoolteacher, fishing for trout, sees one of his students – Martin, the pastor’s eldest son, maybe twelve or thirteen years old – walking on the rail of a wooden bridge high above the stream. If he fell, he would be grievously injured, perhaps killed. The schoolteacher yells the child’s name, and the child does not respond. The schoolteacher runs onto the bridge and accosts the boy. “Didn’t you hear me?” The boy heard him. “Why didn’t you respond?”

Christian Berger’s camera does not move frequently within scenes – viewing through its eye, one feels like a person whose legs don’t work but whose hips can still swivel – but during conversations, virtually always between two individuals, the camera likes to look full into people’s faces. Even though we don’t have to watch the character say each word, the cuts are more frequent here than they are at any other time. Sometimes, the camera is rooted in one place for minutes at time: when Felder sees his dead wife’s body laid out, or, better still: Klara’s mother calls her from upstairs; Martin is called; Martin comes; Klara (Martin’s older sister) comes; they walk to another room; the rest of the family is in there but we can’t see much of the room; Martin leaves the room; we see Martin go into a room, pulls out a cane, leaves, and then reenters that room. Swat. Yelp. (Mentally, we count, “Ein.”) Swat. Yelp. (“Zwei.”) Swat. Yelp. (“Drei.”)

Anyway, editing takes over in this scene even though the camera is basically still. It’s closer to Martin than the schoolteacher; our focus on Martin himself is a true close-up, while much of the schoolteacher’s torso is present. We can very nearly allow ourselves to be subsumed in Martin’s huge eyes. His answer is cryptic, and is profound enough for someone who has yet to reach an age of reason. “I gave God a chance to kill me,” he says. “He didn’t do it, so he’s pleased with me.”

I’ve always had a problem with lines of thought which claim to know anything about God’s motivation; in The Crucible, that fallacy is dismissed with the memorable line, “Before God’s laws we are as swine! We cannot read his will.” The schoolteacher is only a schoolteacher, and even in that role he is inadequate. He was born a tailor’s son and he will die a tailor; this is like his year working for Teach for America  Germany, waiting for his true profession to net him the way he was netting brown trout. He does not attack the boy’s casuistry, nor does he pry into why a twelve year-old is testing God. “Promise me you won’t do it again,” the schoolteacher commands. The schoolteacher, for his flaws, is a decent man. Meanwhile, the words of Dark Helmet ought to be ringing in our ears, while the powers of darkness believe that because God does not actively stop them, they must be pleasing in his nostrils.

There are four walking symbols of traditional authority wandering around Eichwald, the small agricultural village which holds most of The White RibbonThe most transparent is the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), who employs half of the village and owns a significant portion of the land; he is a Junker in the last days before World War I, and his authority is obviously doomed. The Baron is distant and his presence or absence in church is reckoned as a portent of his mood. He is content to remain in his manor and collect revenues, except when something bad is happening to his family: for example, when his young son is kidnapped, trussed up in a sawmill, caned, and left there for hours. He is unable to extract a confession from anyone in the village; the closest he gets to that is discovering which person scythed his cabbages earlier that day.

The doctor (Rainer Bock), as an educated man in a village where most people probably can’t read, is something of a potentate. He does not exert this authority over his fellow-citizens during the film; he tends to keep that authority much closer to home. He dismisses his mistress (Lothar) with offhanded cruelty; he has been screwing her for years – presumably even while his wife was alive – and been taking advantage of her help for his practice for years. More frightening is the power he exerts over his daughter. He returns home from the hospital, and his daughter, Anni, is there to greet him. He looks for his son, but Rudi is hiding in the bathroom. (Rudi has learned about death because of his father’s “accident” – someone stretched wire between a tree and a fencepost, and the doctor rode right into it: the horse was killed, and the doctor broke several bones.) Instead of trying to talk Rudi down, the doctor decides to leave him in the bathroom. “How old are you now?” the doctor asks Anni. She’s fourteen. “You look just like your mother,” he tells her. We see and hear later, from two witnesses, that the doctor is molesting – and probably screwing – Anni.

The schoolteacher (Friedel) is typically a weaker authority figure in the town, and he’s at the bottom of the totem pole here as well. Schoolteachers exist to have power over children but not over adults; he is the youngest of the authority figures in the film, in his early 30s, and he is the only one without children. He spends most of his time courting a shy – in his words, “childlike” – young woman who was the Baron’s governess until his son was kidnapped and caned; now she lives in her home village, learning to be a hairdresser; it goes reasonably well, considering that she has a Marcy-ish penchant for calling him “sir.” The schoolteacher is arguably the most important authority figure in the movie because of his proximity to the children.

The plot of The White Ribbon looks like it’s about the adults. This is like saying that the plot of Jaws is about Brody; in the words of Ahab, the movie is about “inscrutable malice,” and the inscrutable malice belongs not to the adults – whose transgressions are writ large. No, The White Ribbon wants to spend time on crimes which we only know from results: even the causes are shrouded in mystery. The tripwire which maimed the doctor, the caning of the Baron’s son, a barn set on fire, and, most savage of all, the beating and blinding of a boy with Down’s syndrome; these are the works of children, which we know even if we don’t see them do it. Only one scene wants to explicitly connect a brutality to an individual, and we’ll talk about that later.

The schoolteacher is the authority figure who falters. The Baron and the doctor were never exactly thorough themselves; the Baron only brings in the police to investigate the string of crimes in the village once Karli, the disabled boy, is beaten, and the doctor isn’t exactly subtle about his despicable sexual exploits. But the schoolteacher, closer to the children than anyone else, falls into what would be a stroke of luck in virtually any other movie. Erna, the steward’s daughter, told the schoolteacher that she’s had a dream that Karli will be brutally injured. (Of course he will be.) She’s had other “dreams” as well: one of them concerned her brothers. Jealous of the new baby, one brother will open the window during the winter months and kill the baby with a chill. It doesn’t quite come true: the window is found open in time, the doctor is brought in, and the baby lives. It is not until the policemen come to Eichwald that the schoolteacher begins to put some pieces together; neither he nor the police can get Erna to confess to any knowledge of who beat Karli. In traditional features, the girl’s change of heart would have led to some sort of punishment for the transgressors. Here, it only convinces the schoolteacher that the wrongdoers are slipping through his fingers. He visits the pastor’s home, meets with Klara and Martin. He comes close to accusing them but steps back from that line. He demands to know what they know. Their mother comes in with the coffee that the schoolteacher asked for. He peels off questioning. He is no closer to accurately naming the culprits.

And they are plural culprits. The steward’s children, of course, are prime suspects – not only is there the issue of their younger brother, but one of them throws the Baron’s son into a pond when he plays on a wooden pipe while a steward’s son struggles to make his own. Yet when the children gather around their victims, inevitably to say something like “We’re here to check on her,” it’s Klara who speaks the words. She and Martin see the fire at the barn from their house; they could not have set the barn on fire, but the caning they receive from their father eerily mirrors the caning that the Baron’s son receives. Karli, once he is recovered by the adults, is found with a note that states that the sins of the father will  be met with punishment by future generations. A Biblical text supposes the pastor’s children; the sins of the father, though, supposes Anni. The point, of course, is not to sit around and deduce which child did what, and who is most responsible. Once the fingers are pointed at the children – and those fingers are pointed within five or six minutes, when equal numbers of boys and girls walk away from school, the boys running and the girls walking abreast – all we can do is wonder who led which exploit.

The pastor (Klaußner) is an expert in punishment. He is the film’s most memorable character, a heavy-headed man who speaks mostly in monologues; this is perhaps appropriate for a clergyman. He seems to be made of iron. He sends to bed the entire family, himself included, without supper when Klara and Martin (perfect names for a pair of German Protestants) are late. Any sin or failing is met with punishment: caning, maybe, or more memorably, conspicuously placing a white ribbon on a child’s person to remind them that they are meant to be pure at heart. His sermon to Martin about masturbation hits all the right notes: he tells Martin that he’ll die, covered in “pustules” if he doesn’t stop. The pastor, of course, is not going to let Martin fix this on his own; he ties Martin’s wrists to the bed each night.

But the pastor is weak. He gives a confirmation class at the schoolhouse during evenings, which Klara, his eldest, attends. When he arrives there, a group of children are being generally obstreperous, and he blames her. He finds his pet bird, Peepsie, mutilated on his desk not long after. We know who did it; it was Klara, who rummaged through her father’s desk, found the scissors, and then opened up Peepsie’s cage and took him out. It is a fantastic image that the pastor sees, artistic, and of course awful.

When it comes time to offer Klara the wine at her confirmation, the pastor hesitates. He must know it was her. But the whole village is there, watching. Justice is easy enough to administer in the home, where the sins can be shared so that the family can live “in mutual respect.” Administering that justice, withholding her confirmation in front of the community, bringing shame on his house: he decides that’s too much. He gives her the wine. For a similar reason, one supposes, he shouts down the schoolteacher’s supposition that his children are the ringleaders of the Eichwald crime ring. The pastor, of course, knows. How could he not?

There is a lot of press about the movie that talks in this general line: “Naziism was born in the authoritarian upbringing of those who were children in the pre-World War I years.” And this seems a little shortsighted for a couple reasons. First off, if authoritarian upbringings were all it took to make future authoritarians – or, at the very least, were the secret ingredient in making future authoritarians – then authoritarianism would be an insuperable force, right? But more importantly, and much more in line with the movie, the issue is that the authority figures have abdicated their authority. One is absent. One is decadent. One is wimpy. One is hypocritical. This is not like the rise of Naziism; the people who abdicated their authority to the Nazis had massive forces, domestic and foreign, acting against them. The Baron, the doctor, the schoolteacher, and the pastor have no such pressures acting against them. Indeed, they have all the power, but they cannot break the fortitude of the children whose will to cleave to one another in silence and violence is unbreakable. The authoritarian parties – money, sex, education, faith – are in many ways despicable, but each of those parties have clear motivations. Even after two and a half hours, it is practically impossible to know what motivates the starkness of the children’s hatred, and that’what makes this movie a little blood-chilling. How easy it is, we think, to diagnose and medicate and prevent and sometimes even cure when we know the cause. But when the cause hides itself, all of that authority dissipates, and those who used to be in control are left grasping to collect whatever order they can salvage. Even punitive Lutheranism or sexual evil is preferable to the inscrutable malice unseen.

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