Thursday, September 23, 2010

Michael Haneke | Das weisse Band—Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon)

by Douglas Messerli

Michael Haneke (writer and director) Das weisse Band—Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon) / 2009

In the small German village of Eichwald just before the outbreak of World War I the people appear to be God-fearing and hard-working citizens, obeying both the economic rule of the local Baron (Ulrich Tukur) and the religious values presented to them by their pastor (Burghart Klaußner). Through their families and school teacher (Christian Friedel), the children have been taught humility, purity, and, above all, obedience. Although Eichwald is a poor village, it is, on the surface, a model German community.

As the School Teacher narrates, however, a series of events begin to happen that brings everything into question. It starts with a small wire being struck between the gate to the Doctor's house, which throws him, killing his horse as he returns home from his medical rounds. The Doctor, himself, we soon discover has recently lost his wife, and is forced to rely heavily on the neighborhood midwife (Susanne Lothar) for the care of his older daughter, Anna and his young son, Karli. The Midwife's son, Kurti, represents another burden since he is mentally retarded.

This purposeful attempt on the life of the Doctor—who survives with a broken collarbone and arm, but is forced to spend weeks in a hospital in a neighboring town—causes pain and fear within the family and general consternation throughout the community. Yet no one is able to explain who might have done the act, nor can the wire be found soon after the event.
A short while later, an older working woman is killed on the Baron's property when a rotten floor gives way. The bereaved family, particularly the elder son, are convinced that the accident has been a result of carelessness on the part of the rich landowner, and the son "revenges" his mother's death on the day of the harvest celebration by destroying most of the cabbages in one of the Baron's plots. His crime, in turn, forces the family into near-starvation when the Baron refuses to further employ them.

Through his stunningly beautiful black and white landscapes, which help to distance us from the period and view his film from a more objective perspective, Haneke ultimately takes us into the homes of some of these "good folk," where we see them almost as August Sanders-like photographs come to life. The Pastor, for example, is shown to be a strict autocrat at home, severely beating his children for arriving late for dinner and, as further punishment, forcing his two eldest children to wear white ribbons as signs to remind them of purity and faith. When he discerns that his eldest boy, Martin, has been masturbating, he ties the child's hands to the bed each night. Arriving at the school for Confirmation lessons, he discovers the children loudly playing with others and forces his daughter, Klara, to stand at the back of the room, her face turned away from him as he berates them for their actions, a sermon which ends with her collapse.

When the seemingly "kindly" Doctor returns home we quickly discern that he and the Midwife have been engaged in a long-time affair in which he verbally abuses her, while he is also sexually abusing his teen-age daughter.

Surely the adult abuse of these children is somehow related to the events occurring throughout the community.

And still more "little atrocities" occur: the Baron's barn burns, his son, Sigi, goes missing and is found tied up naked to a tree where he has been badly beaten. In another instance one of the Steward's sons throws Sigi into the river, and, in return, is beaten by the Steward. In another home a baby, left beside an open window in the cold winter night, has grown ill. The peasant whose wife has died on the Manor commits suicide.

At the Pastor's home, Klara, recovering from her breakdown, kills her father's pet bird by running a scissors through its mouth and guts.

These acts of hate, punishment, and revenge affect even the innocent love of the School Teacher and the young nanny, Eva, working at the Manor. After Sigi's abduction, Eva is fired, even though she has been hired only to care for the baby, and she is forced to return home where "they will never understand." Later, the School Teacher's attempt to ask for her father for her hand in marriage ends abysmally with the Father demanding that he wait another year before asking again.

Meanwhile, the "little atrocities" grow into near murder as the Midwife's retarded son is found beaten, his eyes gouged, an act that nearly blinds him.

The Baroness reveals to her husband that she has fallen in love, on her temporary escape from Eichwald to Italy, with another man. She wants to take the children out of what she perceives as a world of distorted values.

On June 28, 1914, in the very midst of all these inexplicable happenings, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is killed by a Serbian nationalist, and by September of that year Germany outlines its intents and plans for War.

In an attempt to visit his beloved Eva, the School Teacher borrows the Baron's bicycle, but before he can even leave the yard he is met by the Midwife, who demands that she be given the bicycle; she knows, she insists, who is the guilty party behind all the these atrocities, and is on her way to the nearby town to report it to the authorities. Dumbstruck, the Teacher permits her to take it away, but as an afterthought he checks her house, which she has boarded up and locked. Has she left her young son there alone? Upon exploring a back window he discovers the children from several families gathered, trying to call in to Kurti, who has apparently been the source of his mother's information.

Suddenly, the School Teacher remembers that these same children had gathered at the Doctor's directly after his accident. One of his students had previously revealed a horrible "dream" about Kurti. Are the children themselves guilty of these horrendous acts?

The Doctor, he soon discovers, has also just left the village, taking along his two children. When he attempts to query Martin and Klara they offer him no information. A talk with their father ends in the Pastor's explosive dismissal of the Teacher, assuring him imprisonment if he dares to tell his fears to anyone else.

Local gossip, meanwhile, tells a terrible tale of the Doctor's and Midwife's ugly relationship, an affair, the locals claim, that began far before his wife's death, and which bore the son they both tried to abort, the retarded Kurti.

Here, the story comes to a conclusion. The War has been declared, and the Teacher is inducted. The voice of an old School Teacher who has been telling this story, now a tailor, has never seen Eva again. He has no real evidence, moreover, of who may have committed all these acts so long in the past.

In a sense, it doesn't matter. Everyone in this small village has in some way been involved in each of these "little atrocities" almost as preparations for the German and Austrian actions of the greater atrocities of both World Wars. Eichwald was simply a microcosm of the culture's transformation of good and kind people into fearful and hateful ones.

Los Angeles, January 3, 2010
(c) Copyright 2010 by the International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

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