Official poster for Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon
AS EVERY CONNOISSEUR OF horror films knows, the scariest monsters aren’t the ones you see but the ones you don’t. In his latest film, The White Ribbon: A German Children’s Story, winner of this year's Palme d’Or in Cannes and Germany’s Oscar submission for 2010, director Michael Haneke presents his audience with the creepiest film of the decade without showing a single creepy monster. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he does indeed show an entire village filled with creepy beings, leaving us to figure out which among them are even more monstrous than the rest.
It is the year 1913 in the fictitious northern German village of Eichwald – an innocuous enough name in itself (“Oakwood”) that nevertheless leaves a creepy taste in the viewer's mouth due to its associations with Eichmann and Buchenwald. Everything should be just fine here, because these are, after all, Germany’s good old days. The First World War has yet to erupt (it will before the film is over), Wilhelm is still wearing the crown of the German Empire, and the Nazi Party is not even a sparkle in the eye of a young Munich painter called Adolf Hitler. And yet all is not well in this picture book quasi-feudal community. Three men reign supreme: the feckless baron (played by Ulrich Tukur) in his manor house, who owns all the means of production for miles around (assisted by his violent and lecherous administrator, played by Joseph Bierbichler), the tyrannical Lutheran pastor (Burghart Klaussner), and the incestuous and seemingly psychopathic village doctor (Rainer Bock). The regime they maintain is characterized by violence, misogyny, stupidity, systematic hypocrisy, and “God-given” authority. As the narrator (the empathetic village schoolteacher, played by Christian Friedel) says retrospectively at the start of the film, what happens in Eichwald “may cast light on other events in this country.”
Harvest time in Eichwald:
The "good old days" were never so sinister
Life is ugly enough in this world already, but a series of cruel and inexplicable events transforms dowdy Eichwald into a village of the damned: In the very first scene, the doctor is brought down from his horse and nearly killed when unknown persons string a wire between two trees at the entrance to his property. One of the baron’s barns goes up in flames. A peasant woman dies in an accident that occurs in the baron’s dilapidated sawmill. At the annual thanksgiving festival, the baron’s young son is kidnapped and later found in the same sawmill, tied up and brutally beaten. A poor local farmer turns up hanged in his own shed, an apparent suicide. A few months later, the out-of-wedlock Down syndrome son of the village midwife is discovered tied to a tree with his eyes gouged out. Clearly someone is taking revenge for something. Yes, the perpetrator or perpetrators represent pure evil. But considering everything else that is going on in Eichwald, can you entirely blame them for fighting back?
A semi-feudal regime:
The pastor, the Baroness, the Baron, and their son
The essence of this film can be summed up in just nine words: “The birth of terrorism from the spirit of fundamentalism.” As revolting as most of the villagers are – the abusive doctor is particularly contemptible and well deserving of the attempt on his life – the village pastor is probably the most sinister character and may even surpass the Bishop in Fanny and Alexander for puritanical viciousness. In a vital scene early in the film, he lashes out at his two oldest children, the alarmingly passive-aggressive Klara and Martin, for coming home late on the evening when the doctor was nearly killed. He not only beats the two preteens with a cane and sends the entire family (himself and his wife included) to bed without supper, he also decrees that both children will henceforth wear a wide white ribbon – symbolizing "innocence" – on their persons to remind them of obedience and the wrath of a vengeful god. (Oddly enough, it never occurs to him to ask what they were really up to that fateful day…) Later on, he accuses Martin of masturbation, feeding him a cock and bull story about a local boy who supposedly died from it, and then ordering that his hands should be tied to the bedstead every night to prevent him from “polluting” himself further. Like all the children in the village, Martin meekly submits to his father’s divine judgment, but clearly draws his own conclusions from this humiliation – and bides his time.
Condemned to wear the white ribbon of innocence:
The pastor's passive-aggressive son Martin (Leonard Proxauf)
Among the film's many horrors, it also presents the decade's most horrific sex scene, a rear-entry encounter between the doctor and the village midwife (Susanne Lothar), his despised live-in assistant/mistress, against the dining room buffet just moments before a joyless lunch. True, the scene lasts only about five seconds, but that is part of what makes it so horrible.
The only flicker of humanity comes from the sensitive, liberal-minded village schoolteacher/narrator in his courting of the lovely but sexually repressed farmer’s daughter Eva (Leonie Benesch). Her abusive father (Detlev Buck), who embodies the pure malice of the Wilhelmine patriarchy, is visibly torn between his desire to get rid of his elder daughter (“You can see how many other goddamn mouths I have to fill”) and his obvious delight in tormenting the poor teacher by postponing the young people’s marriage as long as possible.
The schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) and
the farmer's daughter (Leonie Benesch)
Haneke filmed The White Ribbon in color and then remastered it in an icy black and white. This was an inspired choice, since the shades of gray practically pull you head first into those morbid photos of long dead ancestors you find lurking in the pages of your family photo album and on the whitewashed walls of your local historical museum. Many of the images seem to spring from the Weimar era photos of August Sander. In case you ever wondered this: Were the lives of our forefathers really as gruesome as their images suggest? Yes, Haneke tells us, they really were that bad – and perhaps much worse. Moreover, he seems to be suggesting, our own brave new world of 2010 may also be a great deal less 'enlightened' and 'innocent' than we might try to kid ourselves into believing.
Casting the film proved to be a challenge. Haneke hired not only a number of outstanding German actors (most notably Tukur and Klaussner) but also an immense number of complete unknowns. Most notably, he spent half a year looking for what must be the scariest-looking children in all of Germany, testing more than seven thousand of them until he finally identified the most terrifying of the lot.
Whenever evil appears, the children are never far away.
Director Michael Haneke screened over 7,000 children
before making his selection.
Ah yes, the children. I must say that when I left the cinema in Berlin’s Hackesche Höfe two and a half hours later I was still wondering what this frightful but accurate deconstruction of Wilhelmine rural life had to do with Nazism. But then I remembered the film’s subtitle - A German Children’s Story - and then it all came home to me. Whenever something sinister happens, those "innocent" children are always on hand to observe and perhaps also to laugh behind their inscrutable stares. No, we can't be certain what part the children play in all this, if any (only Klara commits genuine violence on camera when she crucifies the pastor’s parakeet on a scissors out of revenge for his repeated cruelties), but their utter passivity combined with their sneering facial expressions suggest that they can hardly wait to make their move on the older generation – or on anyone weaker than themselves, like the midwife’s disabled son – and pay it all back with interest. Now, jump ahead just a few years and give them access to modern technology and organizational structures – and equip them with an ideology that replaces the pastor’s docile submission to traditional authority with one based on genocidal radicalism – and watch what they do with them.
The birth of terrorism from the spirit of fundamentalism:
German-Austrian director Michael Haneke
These terrorists in waiting are around ten or twelve years old, and as such are too young to participate in World War I. No, instead of experiencing the disillusioning meat grinder of attrition warfare, this lot will instead soak up the dying Empire's "victory" propaganda and later join the Freikorps, the Storm Troopers, and the Nazi Party. In 1933 they will be around thirty years old and will form the backbone of the new regime. They will indeed take their revenge, and we will all feel it for generations to come.
Submission without love:
The pastor's children are expected to kiss their parents'
hands before being caned and sent to bed without supper
Back in 1972, Wes Craven’s horror-splatter film The Last House on the Left promoted itself with the slogan: “It’s only a movie… only a movie... only a movie.” Can the same be said of The White Ribbon?
The White Ribbon opens in selected U.S. theaters on December 30.