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Painfully Good

On the eve of the Oscars, an endorsement of ‘The White Ribbon’

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A still from The White Ribbon. (© Films du Losange, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
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I was warned off the film by well-meaning friends—one of whom worried I would take it too personally, given my Teutonic background, and another disturbed by what she described as the film’s atmosphere of “sadism.” But, after hesitating, I finally caught Austrian director Michael Haneke’s extraordinary film The White Ribbon—one of the Oscar nominees in the Foreign Language Film category—at a screening last month. Before the lights went out, I noticed two “black hat” types, peyes and all, sitting in the audience, the more visible because there was only a handful of scattered viewers. I wondered briefly why they had come to see this movie, then forgot their presence as the opening credits went up over a silent background. That silence alone established a solemnity, a withheld quality, that would be more than met by what transpired on screen in the next two-and-half hours. (The only music in the film is ambient.)

Haneke—whose earlier films include Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, and Caché—has always been interested in the mechanics of brutality, the way in which aggressive impulses are funneled through and acted upon by the culture at large. Described as “Europe’s philosopher of violence,” he has never been one to concern himself with the sheer entertainment value of his work, with cajoling an audience into forgetting that it is watching a cautionary tale disguised as a cinematic venture. In The White Ribbon, he presents an idyllic rural setting in northern Germany and its God-fearing populace on the eve of World War I and, scene by laconic scene, gradually reveals the twisted passions and hostile impulses that seethe beneath the community’s sunlit fields, neat homes, and pious pedagogy. Haneke wants us to take note: This is how cruelty is learned, passed down from generation to generation in a casually escalating pattern, until the collective itself becomes infected and the tormented become, in their turn, the tormentors.

Shot in a silvery black-and white—the cinematographer, Christian Berger, originally shot the film in color and then drained it away—and at a deliberately unhurried pace, The White Ribbon describes the strange, seemingly meaningless crimes that take place during 1913 in the near-feudal village of Eichwald as recalled by the local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) who is still trying to make sense of things many years later. Could they, he wonders aloud in his shaky voice, “perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country?” These events include an accidental death and a suicide, the burning down of a barn, the seemingly random torture of two children, and the sudden disappearance of the local physician (Rainer Bock) and the midwife (Susan Lothar) who was his lover before being mercilessly cast aside. (She is saddled with a child with Down syndrome, who may or may not be the doctor’s offspring.) Things begin to go awry immediately when the doctor is seriously injured after his horse stumbles over a tripwire that is found to have been deliberately stretched between two trees. Police are called in, and various people are questioned but the mystery of who set the trap goes unsolved; resolution interests this filmmaker far less than the creation of ambiguities.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to various members of the hamlet, most of whom are complicit in the stiflingly repressive order that marks the treatment of children, women, and underlings. These include the village pastor (Burghart Klaussner), an ardent disciplinarian and moral bully in true Protestant German tradition who canes two of his terrified children as punishment for some small infraction and ties his oldest son’s arms to  his bed to keep him from the dire crime of masturbation. There is also the Baron and Baronness, who view the townspeople with a mixture of dread and contempt and view each other with equal animus; the Baron’s steward, who lusts after the young nurse who has been hired to look after the Baroness’s twins and beats one of his sons within an inch of his life for stealing a wooden flute; and the doctor himself, who sexually abuses his daughter on the sly when he isn’t busy tending to the sick or indulging in gratuitously cruel remarks to the cringing midwife he no longer desires.

The White Ribbon is heart-stoppingly beautiful to watch, which makes the events that take place all the more disturbing. There are poignant moments and affecting subplots, often involving exchanges between children and adults—as when the pastor’s youngest son, not yet ground into submission, offers him his pet bird to cheer him up, or when a little boy insists on having the mystery of death explained to him by his older sister. But on the whole, Haneke traffics—as he has done in earlier films—in the inexplicably sinister and the openly unwholesome. The film’s title refers to the white ribbons the pastor’s two oldest children—a boy and a girl—are humiliatingly forced to wear until they have proved to their father that they are cleansed of wrongdoing. It’s impossible not to think of the Jewish yellow star or perhaps even the Nazi armband—victim and victimizer, the disempowered and the all-powerful.

It’s impossible, as well, not to think of the whole phenomenon of “soul murder”—of destroying a child’s will—that has been written about at length by Alice Miller, who, in her 1980 book For Your Own Good, directly relates Hitler’s rabid anti-Semitism to his brutal upbringing. Or of the German jurist Daniel Paul Schreber’s 1903 Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, which details an extravagant madness brought on in part by the cruel regimen he was brought up under in keeping with his father’s theories about fitness and morality, and which was the subject of a short study by Freud. Still, even if one isn’t inclined to a view of Nazism or fascism that posits its roots in child abuse instead of political considerations, Haneke’s austere yet curiously undogmatic indictment of what turns out to be a village of the damned makes a convincing case that cruelty, like charity, begins at home—and spreads outward from there.

As I left the movie theater, I saw the two yeshiva bochurs engaged in intense conversation as they walked quickly ahead of me, their black coats flapping, along Columbus Avenue. What, I wondered, had they taken from the film? Had they identified with the oppressors or the oppressed? And then I remembered a comment my older brother, who attended Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in Israel, had once repeated to me, told to him by the spiritual guide of the yeshiva, based on his observation of students from different backgrounds: “Germans break their children’s legs before they learn to walk.”

Daphne Merkin is a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and is writing a book for Nextbook Press.

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Ruth Gutmann says:

This is a thoughtful and well-written piece by Daphne Merkin. She has thought deeply about what connects a child’s experience at the hand of its parents to the influences that become crucial to the youngster in youth and adulthood. But what choices are made in response to these early and sometimes devastating experiences? If there are lines connecting these experiences and influences, they are entangled more often than not, and the nature and inclinations of that youngster play their own fateful roles.

Victoria says:

I am a death penalty lawyer at the trial level. I am well aware of how cruelty begins at home and spreads outwardly. I cannot bring myself to see this film. After reading this, I know I have made the right decision. It would open me even further to the pain of my clients. No one should go through what they went through as children, and no one should suffer the way their potential victims suffered. Soul murder indeed.

Rivka says:

Soul stirring!

Monique says:

Between cruelty sustained and cruelty transmitted lies the essence of what makes us human: freedom of choice.

Caroline says:

The piece is lively but the comment by Monique is beautifully stated. Is this a quote from someone else or your? I’m not sure i agree though. The whole concept of soul murder is that it dehumanizes the person. Why some people can go through unspeakable brutality and emerge still intact and able to choose is a mystery. How much or how little does it take to hold on to our spark of humanity?

Deborah says:

Ms. Merkin, you say in your last paragraph, about the “yeshiva bochurs” (a term which refers to boys or young men only, while you called them “black hat types” earlier in your piece, which would include men of any age) that you wonder whether they “identified with the oppressors or the oppressed?” You are suggesting that either is possible. Why? Why not assume that they, and most others experiencing this disturbing story would be more concerned about the victims than those who victimized them, and thus not identify with the oppressors? Since you are singling these men out, if anything might be assumed, it would be that they would be sensitive to what Germans did to Jews in the Holocaust only 3 decades after this film takes place, and therefore identify with the oppressed in the film. Are you thinking of the the Israeli Jews who supposedly oppress Palestinians? Or, or you thinking of yeshivot so strictly run that teachers abuse their students? (Which may happen, as elsewhere, in individual cases, but is not representative of these institutions.)

Monique says:

Caroline, the quote is mine and is inspired by Judaism’s belief in personal responsibility and freedom of choice between good and evil. Your question is a very important one, though, especially in our era, where DNA, upbringing and environment have replaced freedom of choice as the explanation for our moral/immoral actions. For a possible answer to your pertinent question, I suggest reading noted psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, published in 1945, after his liberation from the concentration camps, and after having lost nearly his entire family at the hands of the Nazis.
I included a link to an interview with him, where he talks about freedom of choice:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9EIxGrIc_6g

Aviva says:

Did “The White Ribbon” also have scenes of the abuse of animals? Psychologists have proved that the torture of animals by children — encouraged or ignored by parents and educators — is a “training ground” for their abusing humans as adults. Because children’s torturing of animals — along with arson and bed-wetting — is often a symptom of their being abused by adults, cross-reporting systems have been instituted in various countries between police, child welfare agencies and humane groups/SPCAs/shelters. The links between animal abuse, child battering and domestic violence against women were the subject of a major conference held in Israel several years ago with speakers from the above agencies all over the world and attended by Israeli educators and psychologists. It was organized and sponsored by CHAI: Concern for Helping Animals in Israel (website:chai-online.org.

virginia m. mitchell says:

As a young teen ager I had a venimous tongue and particularly vicious about one classmate. One day she took me aside and told me I was the only friend she had. I was completely mortified. I decided to try to be more charitable. “Let your lips not speak evil/and your tongue refrain from guile>” It is a free choice.

victoria says:

There is a school of thought that the word “choice” as it applies to acts of immorality or “evil” is not an appropriate word. For “choice” implies just that: out of all options available, one opts to do a thing”.

Some forsenic psychologists have used studies by the Department of Justice, particularly in the areas of Risk/Protective Factor analysis, to opine that an act of violence is not a person opting to do a thing. Rather it is born from factors that the person had no “choice” at all to accept or deny.

Stay with me for just a moment: A child laying in a bassinet in a hospital was not born to kill. He or she did not choose to be born to an alcoholic mother who drank throughout her pregnancy, did not choose to lay in bed beside her as she turned tricks, did not choose to be beaten, did not choose to be kept out of school, did not choose to be molested by various johns, did not choose to have his/her home raided by the police, did not choose to have his/her mother arrested..and on an on.

Bear with me here: so why then does this child kill and the sibling of this child not kill? Why does this child kill and not similarly situated children kill?

According to the DOJ the answer is simple: protective factors. Those that did not kill or engage in other acts of violence had SOMEONE who reached out to them: a teacher, a coach, a mentor.

Think about this: why do we have programs like Boys Clubs? Big Brothers/Big Sisters? Partners in Education? Parent’s Anonymous? boy Scouts? Girl Scouts? Afterschool programs?

To give “at risk” children other “options” other “choices” than crime/violence. We recognize that left to their own devices, these “at risk children” grow up to be predators.

Now consider…what happens to those children who for whatever reason do not have access to caring adults? Positive role models? Positive mentors? They end up on my caseload.

Not an “abuse excuse”…merely saying think about all the factors before saying one “chooses” to do wrong. Is it a choice if wrong doing is all you know?

Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.

Unfortunately that is for good or ill.

Monique says:

Victoria,
Of course “free choice” has to be defined within the parameters of each individuals’ circumstances. It doesn’t mean that abused children who don’t have protective factors don’t have free choice at all, just that the scope of it is much more limited.
But concerning the movie “The White Ribbon”, I doubt very much though that ALL the Germans who committed and participated in genocide during WW2 were victims of abuse, like Michael Haneke wants us to believe.

Armin says:

That depends on your definition of “abuse”.
If you believe that there is such a thing as “harmless spanking”
then certainly not all of them were abused.
If you don’t then they were…
What might be more likely to convince you:
Alice Miller interviewed many people who had not hesitated to protect or hide Jews and other potential victims of the Nazis.
Can you guess what they all had in common?
Very few violent experiences during their childhood, or none at all,
but respectful parents instead.

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Painfully Good

On the eve of the Oscars, an endorsement of ‘The White Ribbon’

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