Monday, 23 November 2009

The White Ribbon - Haneke

Michael Haneke's film The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band) at the Barbican is worth rushing out for. I was going to wait for the DVD (also available on download) but I'm glad I didn't wait. It's won the Palme d'Or at Cannes but that alone means little: this a very compelling movie whatever the accolades.

It's set in 1913, but framed by the voice of an old man recalling events that happened long ago when he was the village teacher, and says "it might explain what happened later". Don't, however, fall into the trap of assuming it's some kind of pseudo-history. This film is about human nature and could apply anywhere.

The village preacher punishes his kids by making them wear a white ribbon to remind them to be pure in heart and mind. He loves them and genuinely believes he's guiding them well. By the standards of the time it wasn't so unusual to think masturbation caused death. So purity as ideal and symbol. But the story isn't nearly as simple as you'd think. Many dangerous things are happening in this placid little village. Someone causes the doctor to fall off his horse. Two children are brutally tortured. A barn is burned, cabbages in a field decapitated. Who is doing these things and why? Are the events even connected? As the old man says, perhaps the greater damage was that it created a climate of suspicion, everyone sniffing out evil, even where it wasn't. Then the real "white band", the villagers' innate purity, was lost forever.

This film doesn't do stereotypes. The Baron is the main employer but he's not a remote capitalist exploiter. With status come feudal obligations. He knows the locals personally. When a woman is killed in an accident in his barn, her son wrecks the cabbage patch. Then the Baron's son is beaten up - he hangs out with the local kids, too. Yet the Baron tells the village he knows it wasn't the woman's son. In any case, he tells the villagers, Felder (the woman's husband) is so straight and so upright, he'd die rather than be sneaky.

What's interesting, too, is that the narrative is oblique. It's a series of vignettes which hint rather than explain. The teacher sees the preacher's son walking dangerously on the edge of a bridge. "Now I know God doesn't want me to die", says the kid. His little brother looks after a wounded bird. The steward's son has pushed the baron's son into the brook (this time he's quickly saved by the steward's other son). When questioned by his father he denies it, but as the father leaves the boy plays the baron's son's flute - it's proof, without the need for words.

One day, the teacher encounters Frau Wagner, the midwife, who's rushing off to town because she "knows" who the perpetrators are. It turns out that the doctor, who'd been sleeping with her and his own daughter, has disappeared with the kids. But the midwife doesn't come back either. The local kids are at the doctor's house, trying to look in. Why has the midwife barricaded the windows, in a tiny Dorfchen where doors are left open to all?

The teacher remembers how the band of kids were present at all the strange incidents. He doesn't know (though we do) that the preacher's daughter killed her dad's pet canary by spiking it with nail scissors. The teacher questions the kids, but they're so used to clamming up, they act innocent. So he goes to the preacher, who goes berserk, as any parent would, although it's not just his kids. He threatens mayhem on the teacher if word gets out. But he doesn''t act. Nor does the midwife return. All is unresolved.

Much has been made of the sensational parts of the story, such as the doctor's son seeing his dad and sister in bed, but the film is about wider concepts like taking responsibility. Hence old peasant Felder, whom the baron had exonerated, is found having committed suicide right after the barn where his wife died is razed in a dramatic fire. The baron's wife says she's leaving him, not because there's another man but because she doesn't want her kids growing up in this unhealthy environment. And perhaps the teacher becomes a tailor because his girlfriend's father - a totally direct man who gets straight to the point and doesn't do chat - asks him why he didn't take over his dad's business in the first place.

Watch the trailers HERE 
Get the DVD HERE

Because English language audiences don't know anything about Germany other than Hitler, they might see The White Ribbon as a simplistic allegory about the war. But Haneke connects the story to 1914 for much more complex reasons. Anglophiles assume the First World War was the Western Front, not realizing that the devastation on the Eastern Front was infinitely greater. Both world wars stemmed from events in central and eastern Europe, rather than from the western peripheries. But history is written to suit the winners, and English is so dominant a language that it pushes other accounts out of the picture.

Setting The White Ribbon is that specific time and place adds extra resonance if you think beyond Anglophone assumptions. We might deduce that the film is set in East Prussia because of the reference to Frederick the Great as flautist, and to general knowledge about north German society. German communities, were established as far as Russia around 1000 years ago, nominally under the control of various kingdoms, but effectively self-contained. Hence the Junkers, on whom so much is blamed. In practice, though, feudal throwbacks maintained different values. Üb immer Treu und Redlichkeit bis an dein kühles Grab. Honest and honourable until the grave.

The German communities of Prussia and beyond no longer exist. They were subject to ethnic cleansing in 1918 and again in 1945. Of course that doesn't diminish what happened to Jews and Communists in Nazi times. But the point of the film is that evil comes from human nature, and innocents suffer. Everyone gets caught up in the madness, culpable or not. Which is why real purity comes from being direct, like the teacher's girlfriend's father, and the old peasant widower.

Like the period it depicts, Haneke's The White Ribbon ends in a kind of of limbo. The teacher never finds out what happened because he left the village soon after. Then the war came, overturning everything. By the time the teacher became an old man, the world he knew was obliterated. What happened to the people? Where did they end up, what did they do?

The photo is a real family, taken around this period from an archive collection. No one knows who they are or where they ended up, but in the moment when the photo was taken, they're preserved forever happy and smiling.

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