Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon begins with the kind of dense filmic black you really have to work for in the timing lab. And Haneke keeps you there, staring at that rich black for long moments before the first white title comes, dissolving up out of the dark and then disappearing again, swallowed up. One by one the rest of the titles come and go, in sync with the beating of your heart.
Finally we see buildings and a field, a man on horseback. We are in Europe – in Germany in the Protestant North. It’s the first decade of the 20th century and the doctor of a small town breaks his arm when the horse he is riding trips on a wire someone has strung across the road. As one of the women in the town describes the wire to the police it rises up on the soundtrack as a piano concerto by Schubert, the tones bright and sharp. Something deep in the culture has come unsprung, and Haneke is deft in how he lets the world wars we all know are coming work in silent counterpoint to the still formality of his elegant scenes.
The trip wire across the road is the first in a series of sinister events in the town that go unexplained over the next two years. We move from character to character across the various class divisions, coming to know the citizenry in their public and private selves, which, of course, are shockingly dissonant. The film closes on the eve of World War One, the vast cataclysm that was welcomed across the land as a relief from the seering, inner tension afflicting all. And, of course, that sense of relief at the prospect of apocalypse is something we can all probably relate to in contemporary America, making The White Ribbon seem, unnervingly, like a film for our time.
Obviously, much has changed in the world of man since 1910. Haneke’s small German town offers a window back into a pre-Freudian worldview. Whatever one may think about the state of psychotherapeutic culture today, the everyday sadism of the paternalistic Protestant culture depicted with devastating clarity in this film comes as a shock. We are in the regime of Thanatos, the death instinct. Eros shows up only in the joyful smile of a mentally retarded child (who will be tortured) and in the secretive courtship of the school teacher and a young governess. Reviewers mention the novels of Robert Musil and Thomas Mann, and the portraits of August Saunders. The artist who came to mind for me was the Jewish poet Paul Celan—his most famous lines from the Death Fugue :
death is a master from German his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
In the grip of a demonic religion, these regular townsfolk long for the purity of extermination. And the bland brick architecture of their civic buildings have already been made sinister by images of the ovens of Auschwitz. But what hasn’t changed is the human capacity to embrace delusion, and in the America of Karl Rove and Sarah Palin this capacity is being tested anew.
The White Ribbon looks back to a time when bourgeois European culture projected a veneer of normality by violently repressing all that is chaotic in the human spirit. Death stalks this land of well-ordered fields and carefully cultivated social roles. At the fifteen-minute mark Haneke shows us a young woman wobbling on her bicycle as she rides for the first time–here is love: uncertain, tentative, alive to the possibility and the need for connection. To say so much with so little—
Haneke’s artistry here is sublime.
To some reviewers the young school teacher struck by cupid’s arrow by the young woman on the bicycle is possibly Jewish. I don’t think that’s likely, but the Jews do make an appearance shortly afterwards. At the harvest festival thrown by the local Baron, we see a table of bearded men laughing among each other, full of vitality. Here again Haneke speaks volumes with the utmost efficiency. Anti-Semitism was endemic, an anti-value unifying German’s Protestants and Catholics, but as yet relatively dormant, and something in Jewish culture allowed the Jews to thrive in this stultifying atmosphere without losing their connection to the vital, fleeting dance of Being. But this capacity, in the end, is what made them a target for the German insanity when it reached its full fascist bloom.
Haneke’s portrait of repression and its costs feels entirely accurate…but what are we, finally, to make of it? That people in the North of Germany in 1910 had the wrong idea about themselves and what it means to be human? That, in the grip of these mistaken ideas, they tied themselves in knots until, the cords drawing tighter and tighter, they caused each other terrible harm? We watch as the first rivets pop in the minds of the town’s children, and the news of war indicates how the dark energy of that repression has begun to surge and grow with explosive force. The anger and longing so forcefully stuffed down for so long would find its full expression, as it always does. Within thirty years the rich, bucolic landscape so ravishingly photographed by Haneke and his cinematographer would be reduced to ash and ruin.
The film is deeply disturbing for us as we look ahead, and Haneke intends it to be. The look back in time pivots forward just as forcefully, begging certain questions we’d prefer to avoid. What delusions, about ourselves and what it means to be human, do we currently labor under? What sort of harm will these wrong ideas bring to us and to those we love? Where and how might we take corrective action? The White Ribbon manages to make us ask such questions about the strange machine of the human. We see how our understanding evolves…but never quite fast enough. And so it’s a relief to reach the final crawl of the titles and watch as the names in white type fade down, again and again, into that primal, obsidian dark.