Saturday, May 26, 2018

The White Ribbon (Das Weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte)

THE WHITE RIBBON (Das Weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte)     B+      
aka:  The White Ribbon – A German Children’s Story
France  Germany  Austria  Italy  (145 mi)  2009  d:  Michael Haneke

Among the themes in the German culture that have been identified as conducive to the emergence of the Nazi dictatorship are the following: a submissive, authoritarian culture; an anti-intellectual and antirational romanticism; what has been called Volkishness -- a combination of anti-intellectual romanticism and a distorted form of populism and xenophobia; an exaggerated form of nationalism with a corresponding rejection of internationalism; a glorification of war and martial values; a hostility to the West and modernism and their values; and a deeply rooted hostility to the Jews.

Several scholars conducted immediate postwar studies whose data indicate a strong strain of authoritarianism in the German familly and in other social relations, such as those between teacher and student, employer and employee, and even husband and wife. Related to this is the finding of the classic Civic Culture study that, compared to the citizens of the Anglo-American democracies, citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany felt less competent to participate effectively in political activity

—Lawrence Mayer, Comparative Politics: Nations and Theories in a Changing World, December 2000  
Winner of the Palme d’Or (1st prize) at Cannes, beating out the likes of Jacques Audiard’s 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #10 A Prophet (Un Prophète), which won the Grand Prix (2nd prize), the general feeling is that this is not like anything else Haneke has ever done, as it doesn’t have the punishing individual guilt associated with his other works and it brings children more prominently into the foreground, though it certainly examines the skeletons in the closet of the human race as if trying to peer into our Darwinian roots of evil, described by Haneke as “the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature.”  While Caché (Hidden) (2005) plays upon the collective guilt of a nation, using the present to comment upon racial injustices of the past, here he conjures up the past to reflect upon a country’s impending future, which is another way at taking a look at history before it happened.  The director does this by examining symptoms of communal guilt, denial, and random acts of violence, all leading to a societal breakdown, where a sense of dread pervades the overall stillness, feeling much more narratively accessible, though completely austere, more like a Bergman Scandinavian chamber drama on the absence of God, like THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) or WINTER LIGHT (1963).  Using a restrained and achingly slow pace, it has the comforting feel of a bedtime story with a malicious streak as a narrator describes a prequel to WWI in a typical rural town in northern Germany that thrives on its cohesive community structure which becomes a mirage, like a house of straw, where the foundation is discovered to be rotten to the core, where children are beaten or cruelly molested, women are humiliated by the pompous arrogance of loathsome men, and where an unseen cruelty creeps into the lives of virtually everyone.   

From the outset, the film is narrated by an unseen elderly man (Ernst Jacobi) many years into the future recalling events of an earlier time, where his own life is played by a school teacher (Christian Friedel) who comes from another village, but interestingly, he begins his story by saying it may not actually be true, but he is recalling the bizarre events in the village in order to “clarify things that happened in our country,” which is certainly a comment on both history and memory, each subject to individualized recollections that have a tendency to reflect how we want to remember things.  Because of the prevalence of a narrator throughout, this is reminiscent of Fassbinder narrating his own novelesque EFFI BRIEST (1974) or John Hurt’s biting sarcasm in von Trier’s brutally disturbing DOGVILLE (2003), each exposing characters trapped in the social convention of the 19th and 20th centuries respectively, where society’s alleged good intentions end up suffocating the inhabitants, as defined by Fassbinder’s alternate title:  “Effi Briest, or Many who have an idea of their possibilities and needs nevertheless accept the prevailing order in the way they act, and thereby strengthen and confirm it absolutely.”  In this way, while this story is a tale of ordinary German citizens, Haneke uses a claustrophobic atmosphere of brutal oppression to sow the seeds of what will eventually become a nation of Nazis.  He does this by examining not just the prevailing authority figures, but also the behind-the-scenes behavior of their own children, many of whom will one day be called upon to fight for the Third Reich.  The film shares with Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Il Conformista) (1970) the idea that sexual repression and social conformism are prime instigators of fascism, though it may have more in common with Bertolucci’s epic drama 1900 (1976), which similarly features a central patriarchal landowner whose peasants rebel against him. 
In an unusual turn, none of the adults have names, referred to only by their titles of pastor, schoolteacher, doctor, midwife, or Baron and his wife the Baroness, while the children all have names, though they are viewed collectively throughout, each with Aryan features, often seen in groups, where their motives are constantly questioned, but remain largely a mystery.  Living in feudal times where poor tenant farmers from guest-workers from Poland are brought in to help harvest the annual crops, most all of the land is owned by the Baron, who lives in an immaculate estate, where he is the biggest employer in the village.  At the turn of the century, the aristocracy included 3000 individuals who owned 15% of Germany’s arable land, yet employed more than 60% of the nation’s work force as farm hands, exactly as depicted here.  The Baron is viewed as an authoritative yet benevolent figure, throwing an annual harvest festival for the entire village once the crops have been harvested, an annual rite of food and drink and dancing, though there is plenty of underlying animosity from the class disparities.  There are a series of unexplained catastrophes that suddenly affect the residents of the village, where certain individuals are apparently targeted for acts of malicious violence, as if sending a message, yet these acts speak for themselves, as there are no follow up repercussions except more retaliatory acts.  At least on one occasion we see the actual perpetrator, as the pastor’s oldest daughter Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) is humiliated by her father in front of her classmates, so she sneaks into his office and gets revenge, impaling his parakeet with a pair of scissors, which are left in the form of a crucifix, suggesting she may be a hidden ringleader.  While everyone is a suspect, no one is arrested and the crimes are nearly forgotten, instead, life goes on with the village inhabitants barely even acknowledging the events.  In this way, with societies turning a blind eye, atrocities are allowed to continue.  What the film suggests is that when the majority refuses to act, a vocal minority may rise from the midst invoking terror, such as modern era Radical Islamists or neo-Nazi white nationalists. 

While all his others films have contemporary settings, this is the lone period piece, taking place in an idyllic pastoral world beautifully expressed by natural landscape grandeur, where there are two forces of evil in play, the perversity of the authoritative men, the supposed pillars of the community holding positions of responsibility, each representing a different aspect of power, where their harsh cruelty has an effect on their collective children, whose equally perverse and disturbing behavior goes unnoticed, like an invisible force that has been tainted by a strain of malice, yet they are always around when bad things happen.  Due to the slowly evolving chamber structure of the story, moving from family to family, where what the audience sees is a slowly evolving moral void, much of it through the harsh recriminations of the utterly intolerant local pastor (Burghart Klaussner), a repressive German Protestant fundamentalist who shames and ostracizes his subjects, offering little compassion or wisdom, beating his children for trifling offenses, forcing them to wear shameful white ribbons as armbands (like the Jewish star or the Nazi armbands) to remind disobedient children of innocence and purity, meant to invoke the fear of God, from a man who would be right at home in the bleakest Bergman dramas, where the subject might be a crisis in faith, but here it’s more a collective community absence of moral responsibility, given a completely austere look by the black and white imagery shot by Christian Berger, which was initially shot in color with much of the interior scenes bathed in candlelight or kerosene lamps.  Much of the film’s insights are hidden in small, intimate conversations, like the awkwardly shy moments between the schoolteacher and his virginal fiancé Eva (Leonie Benesch), 14-years his junior, or the schoolteacher scolding Martin (Leonard Proxauf), the pastor’s oldest son, for risking his life on the narrow rail of a bridge high above a stream, only to be told he was allowing God the opportunity to take his life, or when the pastor’s youngest son Rudi (Miljan Châtelain), still untainted by the toxic surroundings, naively asks his sister Anni (Roxane Duran) about death (his mother died in his own childbirth), told forthrightly, unhesitatingly, without an ounce of artifice.      

While the subject of fascism is never addressed, the utopian agrarian dream that formed the basis of mythological Nazi allure was from its outset a firmly planted lie.  Leave it to Haneke to unveil a continuing series of mysteries drenched in a suffocating atmosphere where no secrets are ever revealed, like a riding accident intentionally caused, a work accident which leads to acts of retribution, suicide, and humiliating acts of violence inflicted against children, including a beating of the Baron’s son, a barn burning, a younger child is deliberately placed next to an open window in the middle of winter and almost dies of pneumonia, and eventually a beastly attack on a child with Downs Syndrome that may leave him blind, with each strange event affecting the next, yet each remaining elusively out of rational comprehension.  The sheer meanness of the adults is as exasperating as the secretive, near cultish behavior of the children, who may be behind some or all of these events.  But instead of finding out what really happened, it remains the subject of rumors and gossip and eventually family lore.  The schoolteacher himself, who also doubles as the church choirmaster, and his devoted young fiancé Eva, both town outsiders, are an innocent couple unscathed by the macabre evil that surrounds them, and represent a vein of hope in a wicked world imploding in its own self-destruction, eventually leading to WWI and beyond.  It's a fascinating film, though perhaps not one of Haneke’s most provocative, as it tends to be simplistic in its personification of evil, finding the seeds of fascism (or terrorism) in religious hypocrisy and a crushing authoritarianism, where societies refuse to stand up to their own home grown cruelties.   Made during the Bush years in America which allowed the continued perpetuation of war and torture with so little public outcry, especially from elected officials, where Haneke never really connects the historical threads, leaving it instead vague and ambiguous.   

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