Having the day off, I just saw The White Ribbon, an amazing, haunting and beautiful black and white film by Michael Haneke. The film chronicles a period of approximately one year in the life of a rural Northern German village on the eve of The Great War which broke out in the summer of 1914. Strange events have been happening in the village during this time. The village doctor is thrown from his horse by a thin almost invisible wire that someone has strung between two trees. A female worker on the Baron’s estate falls through some rotten floor boards in the sawmill and dies. The son of the Baron is found hanging in the same sawmill, having been severely beaten. The mentally handicapped son of the village mid-wife is found in the woods, beaten with his eyes severely traumatized. A barn on the estate is set on fire.
And the everyday lives of the villagers is no less aberrant or disturbing. Behind the picturesque village there are numerous secrets. The Pastor is a severe disciplinarian with his children. His elder son and daughter lie to him near the beginning of the film and they are each given 10 whacks with a cane. They are then made to wear white ribbons to remind them that they should strive for innocence and purity. This is the white ribbon of the film’s title.
Later in the film, the Pastor suspects his elder son of masturbating and therefore ties the boy to his bed at night. so that he will not touch himself. The Pastor berates his daughter in divinity class for her behavior and she collapses. She extracts revenge by killing her father’s beloved pet bird. The midwife is having an affair with the doctor who treats her with extreme cruelty. The doctor is molesting his daughter. And the Baroness is unhappy with her marriage to the Baron.
All of this might seem like overkill, but Haneke is making a point about how things like religion or love or family life or even children are not really innocent or uncomplicated affairs. The white ribbon may symbolize purity and innocence, but no one in the film is guilt free except perhaps the school teacher. In contrast to these sinister undercurrents in the village, the school teacher is well-intentioned and somewhat hapless. His love of the young girl Eva whom he eventually marries at the end of the movie is sweet and refreshing against all the mayhem of the village and the disquieting events that take place behind its closed doors.
The school teacher is the chronicler of all of these terrible and tragic events. At the beginning of the film, we hear the teacher’s voice and immediately he is separated narratively from the other characters. He is looking back on these events before the coming of The Great War and he is trying to figure out if his recollection is accurate and how the events of 1913 explain what happened after.
And what happened “after” is the crux of the film rather than the events that are actually portrayed in the narrative. The “after” haunts the film, its characters and the audience and shapes our reading of The White Ribbon. The audience cannot help but realize that in 20 short years from the events of the story Adolf Hitler and the Nazis will seize control of Germany, embark on a brutal world war and commit mass atrocities on a scope and scale never before seen in world history. The children in the film will become the future participants in these events. They will become full-fledged Nazis or at the very least supporters and soldiers of Hitler.
This conclusion becomes all the more likely when the audience along with the school teacher realizes at the end of the film that it is a group of village children who caused the doctor’s fall, beat Sigi, the Baron’s son and Karli, the mentally handicapped son of the midwife and set fire to the barn. It is not some outsider or monster or even an adult. It is a group of children.
The school teacher reaches this horrific conclusion and tells the Pastor, father of 2 of the children the teacher believes have participated in and even masterminded the crimes. The Pastor cannot face the truth. He threatens the teacher and in the end his and the other children are not held accountable for their actions.
In a sense, the horrific acts of the children in 1913 foreshadow the horrors which are to come or on some level the film or better yet its narrator attempts a (futile) explanation for them. The cruelty of the children in 1913 is nurtured under Hitler and provided with fertile ground in which to grow and then perform the most horrific acts. The children of the village are predisposed to the Nazi era; it enables them to continue their cruelty for which they were never punished in the village.
As the narrator, the school teacher relates the events of that year before World War I in a dispassionate and almost banal tone as if unsure of what he actually witnessed or what it means although he does want to know. The film itself has an even rhythm and tone, perhaps the stoic nature of the German, but its emotions are dampened and curtailed. For example, the viewer doesn’t see the beating of the 2 boys or the Pastor’s children being punished with the cane. The only act of violence we do see is the Steward of the Baron’s estate beating his son because he stole a whistle belonging to the Baron’s son, Sigi. For me, this tone implies “the banality of evil” and how a supposedly civilized nation could so simply and easily descend into madness.
One of the most poignant parts of the film for me was the character of Karli, the mentally handicapped son of the village midwife. From the moment I saw him, all I could think of was the Nazi program, Action T-4, that began in 1939 and continued until 1941 under which physicians killed 70,273 people who were considered mentally ill or incurable. As I watched Karli in the film playing, interacting with his mother and his subsequent disappearance and being found beaten, I wondered if the worse was yet to come for him. Did he survive the Nazis? Or was he killed because of his difference?
Hitler’s memo on the subject of euthanasia of the mentally ill reads, “Reich Leader Bouhler and Dr. Brandt are charged with the responsibility for expanding the authority of physicians, to be designated by name, to the end that patients considered incurable according to the best available human judgment of their state of health, can be granted a mercy death.” This simple, short memo encapsulates the concept of “the banality of evil”. Ordinary people (the inhabitants of the village in the film) accepted Hitler’s actions and participated in them seeing their actions as normal or sanctioned. This is how evil occurs.