The White Ribbon

Sins of the father, part 72,973,302
Michael Haneke
Christian Friedel, Burghart Klausner, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Proxauf
The Setup: 
Small repressed German hamlet experiences outbreak of violence among its children.

You and I know that this website contains the most stringent social criticism from the world’s most reliable source—me—but when I have to sum it up for others, I usually just say it’s a “website about bad movies.” In more than half of the cases, this is followed by their immediate dismissal, often accompanied by them saying “Oh. Well, I watch GOOD movies.” And here is an example of just such a “good” movie (and it IS good, don’t mistake me) but in the days following, I couldn’t help but notice that just didn’t think about this movie and its readily-apparent qualities and pre-canned meanings nearly as much as I was thinking about barely-coherent mess Daybreakers, and what might have gone wrong with it. With The White Ribbon, what’s there to think about? Should we go over how the repressions of the parents result in the expressed violence of the kids? For the umpteenth time?

Okay, so this takes place in a small German town just before the events leading into World War I, and we are to reflect on how what happens here may or may not be microcosm of what led into the war, and also that the generation depicted here would have been adults when the Nazis came to power, and more than likely became Nazis themselves. This is all presented in crisp, gorgeous black and white, and is accompanied by a narration looking back from several years in the future, telling us in double-highlighted underlined flashing text, that the events depicted here will help us understand “what happened in this country.”

The first thing is that someone strings a wire along the path that the town doctor daily takes into town, causing him to fall and the horse to be injured. The town Pastor’s oldest kids, Martin and Klara, just happen to be hanging around soon after. No one saw anything or has any idea what happened. That night, a woman in one of the mills owned by the town baron is killed in an accident. Later, Martin and Klara get in trouble for being late to dinner, and their hardass father sends the whole family to bed without dinner, and makes Martin and Klara wear a white ribbon for a few months, as a symbol of their wrongdoing and the “innocence and purity” they must strive for. Surely Grape Nuts are in the kitchen pantry.

There’s a scene in which the doctor’s children are in the kitchen, and the little boy asks his older sister about death, and says “So mommy isn’t on a long trip?” When his sister replies no, she’s dead, he flings his bowl onto the floor. Soon after there is a feast, and we see someone going into a cabbage patch with a scythe and chopping up the cabbage. That night the Baron’s semi-retarded son is kidnapped, and eventually found, having been tied up naked and whipped. Now here’s where something interesting happens: We see a father berating his eldest son, for some crime against the Baron, but we are purposely not told which one he did—the cabbages or the kid. He’s angry that his mother died, but we haven’t been told who she is. We soon discover that she was the one who died in the mill accident, and that the son blames the Baron, assuming that it is his fault for not maintaining his equipment. The thing is that for a while Haneke keeps the guilt and suspicion separated from what the crime was, so they remain just abstract, floating guilt and suspicion.

Soon after, Martin is chastised for masturbating, told by the Pastor that he will grow sick and die. Later we see that he is tied to his bed to prevent such an activity in the future. That night someone burns the Baron’s barn down. The next day, the father of the eldest son with the grudge against the Baron is found hung. He knows he is likely to lose his job because of what everyone will assume his son did.

Other vignettes of cruelty accrue. The town doctor harshly dumps the midwife, who he has been screwing since his wife died, and essentially tells her that she disgusts him and she stinks, among other endearments. She lets on that she knows he diddles his daughter. The Pastor takes the white ribbon off Martin and Klara, but soon has to put it back on as Klara leaves his favorite bird crucified with a scissors right on his desk.

Things continue, and eventually come to a crisis, with some people leaving town suddenly and without explanation, and eventually the schoolteacher comes to believe that Martin and Klara are responsible. In the big final statement, the teacher tells the Pastor his suspicions. Despite having some very good evidence that the teacher may be right, like the crucified bird, the Pastor tells the teacher that he should be run out of town for such horrible accusations and if he repeats them to anyone else he’ll be prosecuted. Eventually the schoolteacher marries his sweetie and they move out of town.

So it’s all a series of events revolving around the idea that the lies and repressions and cruelties of the parents, which pass without examination, result in the violence and cruelty coming out in their children. This is hammered home by the final betrayal toward the end, in which we see that the person who positions himself as the calm, clear-headed moral center of the town is actually just a selfish hypocrite himself.

On the one hand, it’s well-written, carefully constructed, beautifully photographed and features good performances. And its lesson is compelling and true. On the other hand, the lessons we have here are also a little well-worn and familiar. Not to mention the dreariness of coming out of a movie feeling like you have just sat through a “lesson.” Thank you, Mr. Haneke, for showing us poor, ignorant souls the insights that you alone are privy to.

I mentioned my thoughts regarding how the lame Daybreakers gave me more to think about than this, which is by far the better film, to a smart friend of mine, and he had the right answer, I think, which is that with Daybreakers you don’t have scathes of criticism already written about it and what it all means, and none picking apart how it could have gone so wrong, so one is free to have one’s own thoughts. With a movie like this, you see it after you’ve already read a billion reviews about how great and very meaningful it all is, and then the film itself leads you by the nose through its several Very Important Lessons, so really, all that’s left for you to do is agree or disagree. Which is a lot less involving, right or wrong.

Anyway yeah, so good, well-made movie, blah, blah. One can tell from the reviews of this that some people are starting to resent Haneke and the valuable life lessons he has to impart to all of us who sadly lack his peerless insight, and it seems he really generated a lot of ill will with his remake of his own Funny Games, which [apparently, I ain’t watchin’ that shit] was a purposeful provocation meant to make audiences understand that They Are Terrible People. Anyway, between that and Cache, which also seeks to “indict” viewers for wanting to see violence, and then this, I came up with what I thought would be a pretty good cineaste’s in-joke T shirt, which would simply say: “Fuck Off, Michael Haneke.”

Should you watch it: 

I suppose so. It’s good—and good for you.