‘White Ribbon’ a Work of Sinister Simplicity

It’s a question that still plagues modern theorists, a debate that rages on between devotees of outright government corruption and believers in a populace complicit in the crime. The reason Germany went Nazi cannot be encapsulated in a single film review introduction, nor does every supposition deserve support. But in his latest film, maverick Michael Haenke makes the strongest argument yet for how a seemingly civilized country went from refined to fascist in the matter of a couple of decades. Offering a monochrome illustration of the infectious nature of evil, The White Ribbon paints of portrait of the Fatherland before the wars, a nation at odds both with its own place in the world as well as the longstanding battles of tradition vs. the contemporary.

Episodic in nature and told from the aging perspective of small town school teacher (Christian Friedel) who witnesses a series of strange events in the years leading up to WWI, there are several intertwining stories here. The village of Eichwald is lorded over by The Baron and The Baroness, wealthy landowners who employ most of the locals. Needing a nanny for their new twins, they hire shy city girl Eva (Leonie Benesch) and our narrator is instantly smitten with the teenager. Their on-again, off-again courtship acts as a central theme throughout the film. Elsewhere, the town’s doctor (Rainer Bock) falls victim to a freak (and quite sinister) accident, while the Protestant Pastor (Burghart Klaußner) is forced to discipline two of his more “unruly” children. Soon, a shocking crime with sexual overtones is committed. It affects everyone in different ways, including the kids, who seem strangely responsible for the sadistic and brutal acts.

One can easily look at The White Ribbon as the foundation for atrocity, the secret simmering urges left unaddressed and festering by a society seemingly caught up in meaningless minutia, not the real concerns of growing modernization. In the children of Eichwald (a fiction manufactured by Haenke), a mystery is brewing. While they are the victims of a series of unexplained acts, they are also creepy co-conspirators, hiding things from their elders while leaving the audience out of the loop as well. As whodunit’s go – and The White Ribbon is clearly positioned as a major mystery dying to be deciphered – this is supremely aggravating. We want closure to these hollow horrors, we want answers and insinuation, and while there are hints at the how and why this is happening, the movie is giving no relief.

As he illustrated in his otherwise offensive mainstream “gotcha” gimmick fest, Funny Games, Haenke is not interested in convention – unless he throwing it back in the viewer’s face or using it to make some overstated self-righteous point. Our “hero” (for want of a better, more descriptive term) spends so much time beating around the bush and pining for the almost unreachable Eva that we marvel that he ever manages to find the time to do a little evidentiary digging…or that he even cares, for that matter. There are plenty of suspects – the brutish Baron, the self-righteous Pastor, the cruel and sexually miscreant Doctor, various servants and supporting bureaucrats. Between them there is enough suspicion to fuel a dozen detective novels. But The White Ribbon ignores the needs of such genre trappings. Instead, it sets up the scenarios, offers up the herrings, and waits for you to really see red.

The social dynamic is also a key here. Because Eichwald is first and foremost a “company town”, run by the primary landowner and legitimized only when he feels like it, there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and fear in place. Haenke accentuates this by showing his characters off kilter and sheltered. They keep their beliefs so close to the vest that they become insular, almost as necessary to them as their own internal organs. When the rebellious son of one of the workers ruins the Baroness’s cabbage patch, the act fuels a father’s final suicidal decision. Similarly, the noble takes the deed so personally that she runs off to Italy to spend several months recuperating. This is the result of being so sheltered, so locked within one’s own little world that the slightest disruption starts a chain reaction that sees everyone scrambling to retain a sense of self-described normalcy.

So what does it say about the people that few bat an eye over the whipping (and inferred sodomizing) of a child? What does it say that a hypocritical father, filled with supposedly compassionate love of the Lord, ties his eldest son up at night so he won’t be tempted to touch himself? There is a nauseating subtext of pedophilia, the sexualization of children, and child abuse wafting through The White Ribbon, carnal crassness and locked door lewdness that Haenke never truly exposes…thankfully. Sure, the police come and question a few of the residents, concentrating on one young girl who seemingly has “visions” of the crimes. But then the plot perverts such procedurals, instead going back to intriguing moments where young boys, guilt ridden and smirking, seem to know more about the near-death of an infant than they let on.

The symbolism is simplistic – and frankly, it needs to be. Haenke is clearly arguing that the corruption of youth (and the contrast to the title’s iconic emblem of innocence) results in an insidious disease growing gangrenous from the inside out. While the adults are wicked in their own banal belief in tradition, routine, and class, the results of their careless guidance plot revenge and unspeakable acts of cruelty. Toward the end of the film, the handicapped son of the local Midwife (who, until recently, was the Doctor’s devoted love slave) is assaulted in such a manner that it makes us reel in revolution. Yet while the shocked schoolteacher confronts the nonplused parents, the kids seem intent on covering up their connection. While never obvious, all this allusion increases The White Ribbon‘s sense of tension.

Again, we get the picture, especially painted in such gorgeous black and white strokes. Using the visual style as yet another obvious metaphor (things in Eichwald are truly not so clearly contrasting), Haenke builds layers, tossing off asides that come back hours later to pay off perfectly. The Doctor’s devoted children seem like nothing more than pawns in a plot mandating they miss their hospitalized father. When he returns home, the truth of the terror under such supposedly unrequited love turns our stomach. Similarly, the Pastor finds a favored pet horribly mutilated. Instead of taking it as a warning, he ignores it, continuing the despotic ways in his increasingly angry home. Indeed, much of The White Ribbon argues for the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ theory of social and interpersonal discourse. Whenever anyone threatens to open the lid on this small town of scandal, they are rebuffed in ways both confrontation, and in some cases, fatal.

The question remains, however – how does what happens over the course of two years in a small German town become indicative of the eventual Nazi movement and its genocidal designs? The answer comes in what The White Ribbon, and Haenke, doesn’t show us. We see the faces of these children, the country’s future staring back at us in flawlessly framed portraits – and it’s all there. The fury. The resentment. The need to act out and the lack of a release. The pain of a hundred undiscovered crimes and the humiliation that comes from clueless, compassionless parenting. Over the next two decades this will all fester and rankle, working its way into the fabric of everyday life. Soon, idols will be needed, solutions finalized, and fingers pointed.

It may seem silly to read the rise of Adolf Hitler, his cult status sway over what should have been a smarter and much savvier citizenry, and the eventual extermination of six million Jews into The White Ribbon. Perhaps Haenke never intended it to be such an all-encompassing metaphor. Maybe, he doesn’t see the link we critics want to create. It would be par for his creative course. True, not every nation poisoned with barbarism and superstition ends up destroying a specific portion of its population, or believing it should rule the world. Granted, cooler and more civilized heads often prevail over reactionary realities. But when viewed through this anecdotal prism, the possibilities clearly exist. The White Ribbon itself may stand for a sense of purity and virtue. Those forced to wear it, however, are destined to abandoned said qualities for something far more sickening…and malevolent.

RATING 9 / 10
PopMatters