The White Ribbon (Haneke, 2009)

The montage of shots of the church in the center of the small German town in The White Ribbon is not unlikea similar montage of the steeple shaped abattoirs towards the end of Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes. They are deceiving; false structures that mask the true nature of what lies inside. It is possible to disguise the truth, but the stench of death and corruption is not as easy to ignore.

If Franju’s film presents the reality of a pre-existing industry of death, one that is universally accepted, why do we constantly doubt our capacity for destruction? Do we need to see the tools of murder and violence in action in order to understand and believe them? Haneke’s cinema dares us to accept violence without allowing us the “satisfaction” of witnessing it. In his earlier films, notably Funny Games, this becomes a commentary on our relationship with the images of violence and horror on the screen. Here, even the explicitly carried out punishments by parents is relegated almost exclusively to the off-screen (with the exception of a brutal beating carried out over a stolen flute). In The White Ribbon, the absence of “seeing” not only contributes to a particular sense of suspense, but mirrors a perception of uncertainty relating to our own aptitude towards destruction.

If we need to see violence in action in order to believe it, why are we so soon to believe in God? Why do we deny the existence of evil? Is there an innate and dormant evil that lies inside us, are we naturally pre-disposed towards evil?

More often than not, I don’t even believe in the conception of evil, I believe in weakness. I have to admit, my own argument is fundamentally flawed as I see some actions that defy simple weakness of character and spirit. Then again, to believe that evil controls and overpowers, seems to minimize our own involvement and resistance towards “wrong” actions.  If it is uncontrollable, if it is innate, if it is natural… then it is somehow excusable. Unless it is born from institutions and structures, which Haneke seems to suggest… at least to a certain extent. I think there is more to his argument than how the structures of religion, government, class and the hierarchies at the heart of these outbursts, but it is not the sole contributor. I think that the nature of these structures, at least as presented within the film, breed hatefulness and I think hate is probably the fundamental motivation for wrong or evil acts. In many ways, it is like an illness, not only in how it spreads but in how it is often accompanied by feelings of alienation and paranoia.

There is also a question of simply “feeling” evil, as if it spread like a wind over the country. What really inspires the violence in the film? Is it something that falls over a place and those sensitive to it will either succumb to its power, or simply feel it weighing on them? It is no secret that children are aware of feelings and emotions that they cannot begin to understand. A smile means nothing to a child if the soul behind it is aching or screaming, they sense that pain, perhaps as they can sense evil.

The young girl’s apparently prophetic dream is significant, as it remains ambiguous, probably even more so than the organizers of the “punishments”. I truly do not believe she overhears the plans of the other children. Another important point, the punishments are seemingly irrational. They apparently punishing the children for the failures of the parents (like the pied piper), but even that seems obscure, it is certainly irrational.

What of the future of these children? It is the future of Germany. Even though the film tries to emphasize how the darkness, pain and the “evil” seems to be tied very closely to the town itself, outside influences reign as well. We cannot forget that the film is set at the eve of World War One, and it is not simply a strategic time-space that allows the children to grow up to become Nazis, but a reflection on a wider spread of these feelings, anxieties and outbursts of violence. It re-inforces the almost irrational way actions set into motion to come to the Great War. How a single act was able to bring the world to its knees.

The paranoia, the suspense… Haneke builds many scenes in this film like a horror; the unknown, the dark rooms, the waiting… always waiting. The anguish is inescapable.

In paranoia always lies a hint of truth, it is never pure delusion. We begin to see the evil in objects, and it is no surprise the adults of this film treat children as inanimate or soulless things. It is only when the mother takes her son away from this world that she sees how the air itself seems to suppress his capacity to be real. Fear of objects, fear of conspiracy… we don’t believe children are capable of the other. It becomes an attack of dolls, barely alive.

So many thoughts, very few conclusions. I’m too disjointed at the moment to make much sense.

7 responses to “The White Ribbon (Haneke, 2009)

  1. Wow this is a very interesting blog! I’ll definitely come back and read your other posts. Haven’t seen The White Ribbon yet but it looks like a VERY good film.

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