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Essay

Michael Haneke (2009)

ARCHDUKE FRANZ FERDINAND IS ASSASSINATED. Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia. Germany follows suit three days later, turning on Russia first, and then on France the following Monday.

An unnamed tailor from the fictitious village of Eichwald, Germany, presents these facts in simple, direct voiceover during the final minutes of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. They are the film’s first and only references to the world outside the village, but their common, objective truth reveals an historical purpose to a litany of disturbing events.

In the film’s opening, the village doctor is flung from his horse as it trips over a thin, unseen wire. He suffers a compound fracture of the collarbone, and his practice remains closed for two months. A farmer’s wife dies after falling between two rotted floorboards at the sawmill. The baron who underwrites the townspeople’s harvest festivities sees his cabbage patch mostly destroyed by the dead woman’s son, who feels the baron has disrespected his family by not compensating them after her death. The young man’s father soon hangs himself in shame.

Greater violence befalls still others. The baron’s young son is kidnapped, hung by his feet in a barn, and caned. A midwife’s disabled boy is slashed across the eyes, nearly blinded, and left to suffer alone. A young girl is molested. A barn is burned. A parakeet is impaled. All this is presented directly, flatly, as events that simply have happened.

No villains emerge, though the suspects are many: a baron whose wife has left him, an aggrieved young man whose capacity for violence is only hinted at by the way he operates a scythe, a doctor who screws the village midwife from behind with his tie still firmly knotted. Like most whose self-worth comes at the expense of others, each member of this sad cadre finds himself presenting a façade that he can’t possibly hope to maintain. The baron’s response to his wife’s waning affections is indignation. The pastor’s response to his son’s burgeoning sexuality is to bind the boy’s hands. The doctor’s response to the midwife’s accusations of molestation is nothing more than the tacit acknowledgement that such acts will continue.

The White Ribbon gives us buoyancy in the tailor, a good-natured man who is willing to wait a year to marry a woman fourteen years his junior. At last, he observes that the village’s many tragedies have one group in common—the pastor’s children—and that their father must be the one to confront them. He visits the pastor at home to ask him to do so. The scene is unpredictable. Truth is spoken to power, and suspicion is passed from a weak man to one superficially more capable, supposedly of greater integrity, and certainly of greater influence within the village. But given that he already suspects his own children to be the locus of evil, the pastor not only rejects the tailor’s findings, but also threatens to ruin the man’s reputation and, we are to understand, the tailor’s opportunity to marry the love of his life.

With no basis from which to begin a rational investigation, the tailor can only accept the pastor’s levered strength as the final answer, and, with elementary facts withheld, he becomes a victim, abused, no longer possessing the essential dignity that is his inalienable right. When the world is shaped by non-facts, when not-knowing makes up the fabric of experience, when relativism thrives everywhere, when the scale of destruction is not knowable, when home is a place where rape is presented as flatly as the death of a pet, the right in us cannot be known, because it can only exist in contrast to a knowable, definite wrong. Indeed, a world without facts is one in which common men are left powerless.

The pastor’s threats prove idle, and it is reasonable to believe that the grisly events and their fallout are simply ignored by the villagers on account of the war. But the agents of this destruction are not defeated. Nothing is reconciled. The events are simply repressed, swallowed whole both by those who have suffered and those who have perpetrated the violence. The pastor’s denial, ostensibly intended to give his children yet another opportunity to demonstrate their purity, serves only to cover the past with soil. The seeds he intends to bury will one day bloom as National Socialism’s worst atrocities.

The evil, then, is within the children, but it was not always so, nor did it have to be. It was communicated to them through actions utterly unreasonable, alongside expectations they could not understand, in demands they could not meet, no matter what, simply because of who their parents were. In the film’s closing moments, the villagers wait for the pastor to address them while the children’s choir sings from the church balcony. This impossibly elegant tableau is a portrait of the lost and guilty, a precise and simple judgment unlike any other in Haneke’s work to date. In it, the author stakes a claim to the good with an image of its absence.

 

Andrew Brotzman is the writer-director of the feature film Nor’easter. He lives in Pasadena.


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