Written and directed by Michael Haneke, with gorgeous s cinematography by Christian Berger, “The White Ribbon” takes place in the 15 months prior to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in June 1914. In that moment when World War I became inevitable, the odd events in this little village in northern Germany were pushed to the back of the residents’ minds, but they resurface in the memory of the village Schoolteacher years later.
This film begins in silence. Opening credits are in stark white against black. The narration starts over the black screen that lightened so gradually I was uncertain it was really happening. When the light finally takes over the screen, the picture is in black and white and oh so many shades in between. The cinematography is crisp and clear, the whites so bright they hurt, the blacks deep and dense. Night scenes are lit by lanterns and torches. The mood of this place is somber and the light and its lack reflect that.
From the narrator’s worn voice we know he survived this time in the fictitious village of Eichwald and even the war that followed. He tells us that somehow what happened in the village that year may have been a portent of what was to come in Germany. Maybe.
The first scene shows what is referred to as the Doctor’s ‘accident’; but a wire strung between two trees to trip a horse and kill or cripple its rider is no accident. The Doctor’s daughter Anna (Roxane Duran) runs out of the house to him. He is not dead, but will be carted off to hospital quite a long ways away from his home and children. Anna looks at the horse lying on its side, kicking and screaming. The next time we see it, men with torches, including a uniformed policeman, talk over the still form. At the inconclusive close of their conversation, they walk away from the horse, leaving it in the dark.
That’s the first mysterious incident. Those that follow will not make a pattern inclusive of this, but there are connections. That evening, Anna tries to comfort her five-year-old brother Rudi (remarkably well played by Miljan Chatelain), but is interrupted by pebbles rattling against the window. The village children are there – those who are the oldest in their class, 10 to 14 year olds. The only one who speaks will be the one who speaks throughout the story when adults question the group of children: Klara (precisely and chillingly played by Maria-Victoria Dragus), daughter of the Pastor. She asks after Anna – are you all right? The children are stiff, odd, and this visit offers Anna no comfort.
The Schoolteacher (Christian Friedel on the screen as a young man; the Schoolteacher’s older self narrating the story is voiced by Ernst Jacobi) presides over a dozen children in a one-room schoolhouse, from 6 or 7 through 13 or 14 years of age. He also teaches choir, and gives special care to Karli, the retarded son of Mrs Wagner, the Midwife. No husband is ever mentioned (at least not in the subtitles), but we presume she was widowed at some point. Since the Doctor’s wife died in childbirth five years before the film starts, the Midwife has been the Doctor’s nurse, housekeeper, nanny, and mistress. Susanne Lothar is always disturbing and sometimes heartbreaking in this role.
Klara and her brother Martin (Leonard Proxauf) are preteens, the eldest of many, many children in the Pastor’s household. One night, the brother and sister got home quite late, after dark, causing distress to their mother, their father, their young siblings. So they were informed while standing at attention in the dining room. The whole family is present, but all bowls on the dining table are empty. The lecture is in process, and this Pastor believes in punishments to all for the infractions of the few. The entire family would go to bed hungry, and the following evening Klara and Martin would each receive ten strokes of the cane in front of their siblings. Additionally, once ‘purified’ by their punishment, the two would wear White Ribbons, as symbols of purity, until their father could trust them again.
These are not healthy children despite the idyllic surroundings. They are cold and unsmiling, respectful to their elders in the manner of Eddie Haskell – no, Eddie talked too much. These children do not speak until spoken to. Their appearance on a scene is alarming.
Throughout the film, Martin looks sickly, dark shadows under his eyes, and he is much too quiet. While fishing one day, the Schoolteacher sees Martin climbing along the handrail of a ramshackle bridge over a river. It’s not a long distance to walk, but it would be a long fall down. The Schoolteacher berates him: Don’t you know you could have been killed? Martin answers: Yes. That’s why he did it. If God had such an opportunity to let him die, that He allowed the boy to live showed that God must love him.
Standard adult responses – that is, frightening children whose actions frighten the adults – are repeated by the Pastor. He talks to Martin sincerely and sternly, asking why he looks and acts as he does, as if he gets no sleep and doesn’t eat. The Pastor tells a tall tale of another boy who’d looked like that and got sicker and sicker, with pustules all over his body, and languished into death because of what he was Doing. The Pastor asked Martin if he understood, and was he Doing it too. Martin, crying, says yes. Thereafter Martin’s hands are tied to opposite sides of his bed so he won’t masturbate in the night.
Scenes cut away quickly in this film. Night to day, town to country, idyllic to chilling. In a daylit scene, we hear that a tenant farmer’s wife died in an accident at the Baron’s sawmill. We see a woman bathing another woman’s feet and legs, the upper body blocked by the room’s wall. A figure appears in the doorway through which we see the scene, and he tells the woman to leave. She covers the body with a blanket and goes. The man walks to the bed and around it. He pulls the edge of the blanket slightly, covering a part of the body we cannot see. He moves to the head of the bed and sits so that we only see the curve of his back, and eventually hear quiet sobbing. Branko Samarovski plays this Farmer, whose life becomes too impossible as the film goes on.
The eldest son of the dead woman investigates the sawmill where his mother died, sees that the accident was clearly caused by the rotted condition of the floors, and considers the Baron (coolly played by Ulrich Tukur, alternately fair and insensitive) and his Steward (a jocular, lecherous, and casually violent man as played by Josef Bierbichler). There is no recourse; only revenge. At the harvest festival, that eldest son beheads the Baroness’ neat garden of cabbages. In the days that follow, the Baron’s young son, Sigi (who does not go to school in town with the other children, but rather has a tutor at home on the Estate), disappears. All the men are called out to search for him, and he is found, bound and hung upside down, inside the sawmill, the victim of a vicious whipping on his bare buttocks. The adults of the village are buzzing about this fresh atrocity, when that band of clean and pressed repressed ‘children’ appears again, with Klara speaking for the group – they just want to know how Sigi is.
When the Doctor’s little son Rudi disappears, the village is out in force to find him, fearing he too is the victim of an attack. He’s not – he misses his father, and was found walking on the main road toward the distant hospital. This induced his father to leave the hospital and return home for the rest of his recuperation. The Doctor (played in a quiet, matter-of-fact manner by Rainer Bock, cool and civil even when he is remarkably cruel) is disturbing the moment he steps out of the carriage. Daughter Anna awaits him. She is unsmiling, as usual, except when she motions to where her little brother is hiding shyly from his returned father. A chill runs through the viewers when the Doctor turns to his young daughter and asks her age. “Fourteen, sir,” she says. “You look so much like your mother.” If anyone wondered why the Doctor was targeted for attack, that moment was explanation enough. His housekeeper/mistress will point out his abuse of his daughter later, and finally Rudi comes upon father and daughter in the Doctor’s examining room in the middle of the night. The Doctor is, of course, a beloved pillar of his community.
The only bright spot in this film is the sweet romance between the Schoolteacher and the nanny to the Baron’s twin infants. Eva is from another village, almost a child herself. The Schoolteacher is immediately besotted. Leonie Benesch plays Eva sweetly; she is shy and reserved, yet her feelings and behavior are straightforward. The couple is affected by the incidents in Eichwald, when, after Sigi is attacked, Eva is fired from her nanny position when the Baroness leaves the country house with her children.
In a short period of time, then, we have experienced the attack on the Doctor, the death of the tenant Farmer’s wife, the beheading of the Baroness’ cabbages, the attack on Sigi. And a seemingly unrelated late night visit by the Doctor, his arm still in a sling, to the Steward’s house to treat a sick infant whose window was opened in the middle of the winter night. One of the estate Steward’s children, Erna, tells the Schoolteacher she has bad dreams, that she had one about her brother opening the window in the baby’s room. Now her 'dreams' are of the Midwife’s son Karli being abducted and tortured. Unlike the other adults, the Schoolteacher listens.
When Karli is indeed attacked, the Schoolteacher calls in Police, who interrogate the girl. The Schoolteacher realizes the weeping Erna is paying as much attention to the back door as to the Police, and flings it open to find the children gathered, listening. As ever, when he demands to know what they’re doing there, Klara speaks for the group – we only wonder how Karli is.
The group of children is more and more reminiscent of Salem, without the accusations of witchcraft. Or maybe Village of the Damned.
A clue to the reason behind the attacks is left with Karli when he’s found in the woods, beaten so severely he may be blinded. A note quoting a psalm, one of those psalms justifying violence against children as payment for the sins of their fathers, grandfathers, and whole generations. Surely the villagers recognized it, surely the Pastor recognized it, but no one tries to understand its meaning.
Since this story takes place on the eve of World War I, the question must arise: Is Haneke saying that the children will die in the war that generations of sinful adults have been building up to for years? Or does he expect these children to live through the war and create the Germany of the 1930s?
The men of power and position in the town -- the Pastor, the Baron, the Doctor -- have lost control of the situation. Finally the Schoolteacher goes to the Pastor’s house and confronts Klara and Martin, then speaks to the Pastor himself.
As the Pastor, Burghart Klaussner is quietly splendid throughout. He is chilly, cold, certain in his faith. We do see his heart – his concern for his son Martin is not feigned nor merely righteous. He is a softy to his younger children. As the Schoolteacher tells the Pastor his suspicions, the Pastor’s face is still, noncommittal, but for momentary lapses in his thin-lipped mouth. His eyes don’t quite well up, but it is there in his face: a glimmer of pain, of knowing, of decision. An utterly brilliant performance. The decision, of course, is to deny all, call the Schoolteacher perverse for having such ideas, and threatening his position.
The saddest storyline in the film had nothing to do with the village mysteries, but of a family ruined by a series of events over which they had no control. From the death of the tenant farmer’s wife to her eldest son’s act of revenge on the Baroness’ cabbages, to the loss of jobs by the rest of the family and the blacklisting by the Baron, the Farmer’s life spiraled downward too fast for him to handle. The scenes of this family’s life, meals, work, hardship, and deaths are beautifully acted and filmed.
The village structure is falling apart, the Baron’s marriage is falling apart, and the world is falling apart, exemplified by the assassination of the Archduke far, far away in Sarajevo. The Midwife tells the Schoolteacher she knows who the culprit is, leaves for “town,” and is never seen again. Nor is her son. Nor are the Doctor and his children. Gossip runs faster than horses. The Midwife and the Doctor, how long were they lovers, did they kill the Doctor’s wife, why did they disappear?
At the onset of war, the people gather in the church – the center of village life, where announcements are made to the populace by the Pastor and sometimes by the Baron, where births are celebrated and deaths mourned. The Pastor does not march in as the leader of his flock. He walks in head down and sits quietly, his flame doused. The narrator tells us that these events faded, explained away by gossip, speculation without facts – human beings’ usual practice of making up stories to make sense of it all. The scarcer food gets, the more delicious scandal tastes.
Childhood in the early twentieth century in Eichwald was strictly guided, and errant behavior harshly punished. While we do not see the beatings with sticks, we hear the first four strikes and a child’s cry. Fathers cuff, even punch their sons. It is no terribly surprising the Pastor’s eldest child is a little devil, reminiscent of Abigail Williams in The Crucible – although younger with better manners. Manners enough to hide psychoses. We can certainly see Klara growing up to run a concentration camp.
“The White Ribbon” is not a mystery story. It is a cautionary tale – told to adults, instead of children.
Fade, so very slowly, to black.
~ Molly Matera, signing off. But leaving the lights on.