Michael Haneke 2009
Winner Palme d’Or 2009; Golden Globe Award Best Foreign Language Film 2010; Nominated Best Foreign Language Film Academy Awards 2009
Michael Haneke has described his often discussed masterpiece The White Ribbon as a film “about the roots of evil”; given the director’s origin and the period in which the film is set, it was to be expected that critics would be eager to point out the relevance of the film’s message with regard to what may be considered the defining movement of the twentieth century: Nazism. The White Ribbon examines the reaction of a rural German village to a series of strange occurrences that, despite the intimacy of the village and the increasingly violent nature of the crimes being committed, are never resolved. Although the identity of the perpetrators of these ritualistic punishments is heavily hinted at, Haneke is more concerned with revealing the true nature of the seemingly well-meaning citizens of the fictitious town of Eichwald and, as a result, commenting on the consequences of societal repression and shame. The town is representative of Germany as a nation and, more interestingly, is regarded by Haneke as a human being of sorts; the characters on which the camera focuses are treated as expressions of facets of the German personality. With this in mind, it becomes apparent that Haneke, using his characters as organically utilized devices of psychological significance, has constructed a means by which he can explore the mentality, the personality and identity of the nation in a time of transition.
Whilst Haneke has dismissed as simplistic, notions that the film is primarily about the birth of Nazism, the psychological conditions that the characters in The White Ribbon embody can help the viewer understand how it was that the Nazi movement became so prominent. If there is one thing that Haneke stresses, above all else, it is the perniciousness of shame – an emotion which, the film repeatedly suggests, elicits such an overwhelmingly negative reaction that whoever feels ashamed often behaves in contemptible ways. In what is perhaps the film’s defining scene, the local school teacher, having noticed the untoward behaviour of some of his students, visits the town’s vicar – the father of some of the children in question – to alert him to the possibility that they are involved in the violent incidents from which the town is suffering. The teacher’s suspicions, however, educe the vicar’s fear for his own and his family’s reputation and, more pressingly, play to his deeply rooted shame. The audience has already been privy to the occasion on which the vicar shamed his son for masturbating and allegorically restrained him by tying his hands to the sides of his bed with titular ‘white ribbon’ that, earlier in the film, he had wrapped around his arm to symbolize his son’s supposed purity and his righteousness. The vicar’s shame that he failed to rear his children properly, to instill in them the morality and propriety on which his own life is based, is so great that he lashes out and projects his own issues and insecurities on to the school teacher, shaming him greatly and putting into motion circumstances in which his children’s violence is left unrecognized and unpunished. Of the main cast, it is however the Doctor whose role is the most integral to the exploration of shame. Introduced as one of few likeable characters, the Doctor is subsequently revealed to be the vilest of them all, a man whose repeated misdeeds are rooted in the knowledge that he is culpable. There are two scenes in which the Doctor exhibits his reprehensibility: the first occurs when he sadistically demeans, humiliates and shames his de-facto girlfriend; the second illustrates what it was that provoked this verbal abuse namely, the Doctor’s inability to come to terms with the fact that he is raping his daughter, spreading ‘toxic shame’. The Treaty of Versailles brought shame upon the nation and saw Germany resort to Nazism. In much the same way that the the Nazis of the early twentieth century relied on conjecture to incriminate those of the Jewish faith, the vicar uses the exodus of the Doctor and his daughter from Eichwald as an opportunity to pin all the unsolved crimes on them.
Sir Ian Kershaw, a renowned British historian, once wrote “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference” (Marrus, 2000:91) and, whilst The White Ribbon illustrates this principle, Haneke attempts to demonstrate why it was that such apparent indifference could exist. Fear is at its core. The citizens of Eichwald are expected to repress anything and everything that could be considered improper – to the extent that the townspeople have turned to far worse vices than impropriety – because instilled in them is the importance of reputation. With his reputation threatened by a man of greater influence, the teacher never discusses his suspicions of the vicar’s children and, not long after, leaves the town for good. It is this inability to do what is right rather than what is proper or what is convenient – a mentality that is rooted in German society’s over-emphasis of the importance of a class-based hierarchy – that so embodies the mistakes of the past; it was not indifference so much as a failure to grasp the significance of the individual and the fallibility of an institution. Other, more practical, reasons for the German population’s silence are explored; the farm-hand, fearing for his own and his family’s employment, refuses to voice his anger and despair over the avoidable death of his wife lest this be seen as critical of someone in a position of authority. At one point, he asks his outraged son: “How do you know that they’re guilty?” his attitude embodying that of old Germany – proper, methodical, rational. His son, representing the mindset of the Germany emerging, responds coldly “How do you know that they’re innocent?”
The White Ribbon does so much more than examine how and why the Nazi mentality prevailed, it does so much more than highlight the generational divide of the early twentieth century; Michael Haneke seems to have illustrated what psychotherapist Alice Miller once wrote: “It is not true that evil, destructiveness, and perversion inevitably form part of human existence, no matter how often this is maintained. But it is true that we are daily producing more evil and, with it, an ocean of suffering for millions that is absolutely avoidable. When one day the ignorance arising from childhood repression is eliminated and humanity has awakened, an end can be put to the production of evil.” (Miller, 1991:143)
Marrus, M. (2000) The Holocaust in History. Toronto: KeyPorter
Miller, A. (1991) Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries. New York: Anchor Books
Zachary Boren is the Assistant Film Co-ordinator of the British Independent Film Awards and contributes to the Raindance Film Festival