I’m new to Michael Haneke’s films but my friend Esmerelda invited me to The White Ribbon at the BFI – she has impeccable taste in films and it won Cannes’ Palme d’Or, so I was keen to go. She warned me it might be traumatic (and from the sound of his previous films she was right to be worried) but I like quirky foreign films, ever since my mum took me to the Filmhouse in Edinburgh when I was little. The films it showed were mostly low budget or foreign – some were a bit slow moving (a lengthy Dickens epic proved too much after 3 hours or so) and a little risque for a child (My Life as a Dog where the main character got something stuck in a coke bottle that one might not want to get stuck), but it instilled in me a love of films that are thought-provoking and character-driven, some old favourites being The Frog Prince, Jean de Florette and the shocking Man Bites Dog.
The White Ribbon is in black and white and set in a small North German village in 1913. The atmosphere was somber and repressed – it reminded me of films set in Amish villages or something like The Crucible. It seemed to be set centuries ago, however this was 1913 – wasn’t it just before the roaring 20s when everyone was doing the jive?
The repression and control exerted by the men of the village, and the Baron and Baroness, was overbearing. Women had hair scraped back and high necked black dresses, children were punished violently for any transgressions, even a son avenging his mother’s death was violently rebuted by his father for rocking the status quo.
Events take a turn for the worse when the doctor is injured from a mysteriously placed trip-wire, and the Baron’s son is kidnapped and beaten. Then, the midwife’s down syndrome son is attacked and left almost blind. The feeling of tension is palpable but you never get any resolution. I blame the scary evil looking Aryan children who travel in packs, but you never know. There are several suspects, and you are left at the end with more questions than answers, deliberately so. There is a whole storyline involving the doctor and his cruelly mistreated but strangely dignified mistress, the midwife, that threw up many questions but didn’t give me any answers.
There’s a deeper, darker side too – is the violence that ensues a rebellion against the control or is there intrinsic evil or gang mentality? Why is it the vulnerable and young that are so abused? The only sexual love you see is violent, self-fulfilling. The most touching affection is between siblings or a stolen kiss between the teacher and Eva.
And yet there are several moments of surprising tenderness and affection. Like when the pastor’s smallest child asks him if he can look after a wounded bird, or when the doctor’s four year old boy asks his older sister about death. Hollywood definitely doesn’t produce child actors like this – they are beautiful, serious, transfixing. And again it goes against easy judgement – the pastor seemed so cruel as he beat his eldest children, and tied the White Ribbon round their arms to symbolise purity and rid them from temptation. But he shows such warmth with his smallest, you feel like he’s trying his best and does truly love his children, but that he’s following the rules as he knows them. There is also a funny and poignant romance between the school teacher and nanny, Eva, which is lightly done and warm.
There is a distance placed between film and voyeur whereby we are cut off from many of the acts – you don’t see any of the violence in front of you, but your imagination fills in the rest. There is a scene which shows this directly – when the tenant farmer lies over his fatally injured wife and you see only her feet and his back – its as if the rest is a private moment to which you may not be privy.
There is suggestion by the narration at the start that the events that unfold may help one understand what happened to Germany further down the line – and most critics refer to the fact that the children in the film were to grow up under the shadow of Nazism. There’s some easy symbolism – arm bands and authoritarian discipline – but again I didn’t see many easy links – there is great repression and cruelty but also great emotion and love, and although I’m no historian, it could have been any small inward-looking village where life revolves round discipline and the church. Even US films in the 80s revolved around rebellious children trying to escape from repression (hmm Flashdance not the best analogy ever made, this is why I’m not a film critic).
Although its not an easy film, I’d recommend you see it for the moments of joy and the fact that it makes you think about tons of things – parenting, discipline, love. To have a moan, the BFI has one of the most uncomfortable cinema chairs I think I’ve ever sat in so make sure you assume the correct position early on to avoid neck ache.
You should also check out the BFI’s Atrium bar afterwards – comfy sofas, eclectic chairs, arty crowd.
Here is a great review from Esmerelda’s friend: http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/49581 and from harpymarx: http://harpymarx.wordpress.com/2009/11/05/hanekes-das-weise-band-the-white-ribbon/