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.