A Premonition of Horrors to Come

The White Ribbon, by Michael Haneke

To return to your daily routine after watching The White Ribbon is like making the passage from a painfully bright landscape into the darkness of an unlit room.

Next Germany rehearsal. Brandenburg Gate, Berlin.

Memories of celebrated Austrian director Michael Haneke’s stunning film, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, are bound to trouble your sight long after you’ve left the theatre.

While Christian Berger’s cinematography, rendered in painfully luminous black and white, is beautiful in its own right, it also underscores the difference between the world of The White Ribbon and our own.

Set in a Prussian village, Eichwald, in the two years leading up to the First World War, the film transports us to a world in which modernity is more a rumour than a reality.

Although the early twentieth century witnessed the rise of the automobile and aviation, the only transportation Eichwald’s inhabitants have available to them are the bicycle and the horse-drawn carriage.

And even though this period marked the heyday of the newspaper and the popularisation of film as a means of entertainment, the village’s only forms of public expression are the decrees of the nobility, the sermons of the town’s Protestant minister, and simple word of mouth.

Given Haneke’s long-standing preoccupation with mass media’s anaesthetising effects, highlighted in such pictures as Benny’s Video and Caché, this historical displacement feels particularly significant.

Whatever troubles Eichwald has cannot be blamed on movies or television. But there is plenty of trouble regardless.

The White Ribbon goes out of its way to show us that the depravities of our own time are not a function of technology.

The plot centres on a series of incidents at odds with the village’s appearance of rustic wholesomeness.

The local doctor is seriously injured when a wire strung between two trees cuts down his horse. A peasant woman falls to her death when a rotten plank in the local mill gives way. The nobleman’s son disappears and then is found hanging upside down, badly beaten.

Contrasted with the “timeless” rituals of this agrarian community, these breaks with routine foreshadow the imminent destruction of its way of life. But they also suggest that Eichwald was built on unstable foundations to begin with, like that rotten plank.

The unrest that surfaces after the peasant woman’s death testifies to the exaggerated class divisions of the region, where most people are still in the thrall of a de facto serfdom, and the national government is barely perceptible behind the late feudalism that seems to prevail locally.

Those familiar with Sholem Aleichem’s stories—best known as the source material for the musical Fiddler on the Roof—will recognise the parallels between Eichwald and the shtetl existence he lovingly depicted.

Significantly, although the Prussian village initially appears completely isolated, we come to perceive its connections to the wider world.

Migrant workers are brought in to help with the baron’s harvest in 1913 and we hear him discussing the need to house a large group of Poles the following summer. His unhappy wife winters in Italy after the incident involving their son.

This is a world, in short, whose smallness is a function of the prevailing economic and political order rather than a natural condition. People take trains. But the villagers don’t see themselves as people who do.

Only once do we see a representation of state power independent of the baron.

One of his steward’s daughters confesses to the schoolteacher that she has had a premonition: something bad will befall the village’s mentally challenged child. In light of previous incidents, particularly what happened to the baron’s son, the schoolteacher decides he cannot keep this information to himself.

This impulse seems motivated by his feelings of being an outsider in the village.

Although the schoolteacher hails from a nearby village, his education and possibly Jewish descent—his father is a tailor, and his appearance deviates sharply from the pale natives—may make him regard external authorities in a more positive light.

Police detectives from the nearest town are called in to interview the girl. Instead of indulging her insistence that a nightmare inspired her fears, they question her very roughly. They are sure that she must have knowledge of a plot against the boy.

Particularly noteworthy, in light of The White Ribbon’s setting, is the detectives’ dismissive attitude towards the idea of being warned by one’s unconscious. As the standard-bearers of modernity, they advocate a realism utterly devoid of magic.

The question is whether Michael Haneke shares that point of view.

In most of his films prior to The White Ribbon, the director accentuated the objectivity of the movie camera, refusing to let audiences collapse the distinction between its dispassionate point of view and that of his characters. Unless, as is the case with the youthful sadists of his notorious Funny Games, those characters are like machines themselves.

The White Ribbon breaks with precedent by providing a narrator. While the schoolteacher is on the periphery of most of the narrative’s important events, he is still an active participant in the life of the village.

By recounting the disturbing incidents in a retrospective voice-over, the schoolteacher imparts a sense of humanity to the film that the impersonal narration of the camera eye could never provide.

In “The Storyteller”, one of his greatest essays, Walter Benjamin uses the work of the nineteenth-century Russian author Nikolai Leskov as the starting point for examining the relationship between narrative and modernity.

Every morning brings us the news of the globe,” he writes, “and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information.”

Like the sweeping statements Benjamin makes in his better-known “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” his thesis here seems to capture our present-day circumstances even better than it did when he was composing it in the 1930s.

From social media platforms to the comment pages on major news sites, ours is an era in which the volume of commentary has so far outstripped its ostensible object that finding the heart of a tale can feel like an impossible task.

That’s part of the reason why so many novelists and filmmakers go out of their way to discuss their works. They are desperate to direct the “commentariat” back to their artistic intentions.

Not only are such efforts likely to prove futile, but they also miss the point that Benjamin so ably articulates in his essay: once the teller takes precedence over the tale, the essence of traditional storytelling has already been lost.

“Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth,” he argues, “is the source from which all storytellers have drawn. And among those who have written down the tales, it is the great ones whose written version differs least from the speech of the many nameless storytellers.”

Reading these words, it’s impossible not to think of those collectors of fairy tales who roamed the European countryside in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

They knew they were in a race against time, as the increased speed and frequency of long-distance communication inexorably reduced the degree of regional difference.

To be sure, their exertions contributed to standardising the very diversity that intrigued them. Nevertheless, they succeeded in capturing tales in simple language stamped with the imprimatur of a community rather than an individual.

Given Michael Haneke’s notoriety as a director of formally elegant films, it might seem odd to connect The White Ribbon to the legacy of the storyteller that Benjamin discusses.

But there’s surely a reason why the film’s original German title isn’t just Das weiße Band, but Das weiße Band: Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte.

Many of the main characters are children, indeed. But the term Kindergeschichte — literally “children’s tale”—doesn’t denote the subject matter of the story, but the audience towards which it is directed. Like the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, The White Ribbon is presented as a tale for children.

What makes the film so compelling is its restraint. We are shown some things and told others, yet the gaps in the narrative, both in terms of the camera’s narration and the schoolteacher’s retrospective voice-over, are too big to ignore.

Simply put, The White Ribbon represents the rare contemporary narrative not “shot through with explanation”.

Haneke thereby manages to turn the extreme objectivity of his earlier films back on itself. But he does not do this to evoke nostalgia for a simpler time.

The villagers of Eichwald are no better off than their equivalents in present-day subdivisions. And their lives are harder according to almost every quantifiable measure.

The loss signalled at the end of the narrative, when a telephone call communicates the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, does not represent a loss of innocence, the passage from a “Golden Age” into its tarnished successor.

If there is anything to mourn in Eichwald’s imminent transformation, it’s the disappearance of the capacity to tell this kind of tale without referring to broader geopolitical forces.

Or, to put that insight into terms Walter Benjamin would appreciate, what passes away is our capacity to perceive the story of The White Ribbon as something other than an allegory, a premonition of horrors to come.

Just as many people have missed Benjamin’s point about mechanical reproduction, letting their nostalgia blind them to the utopian possibilities he delineates, there is a misconception that “The Storyteller” is purely a lament for a bygone era.

Haneke seems to grasp the dialectical nature of Benjamin’s argument better than most.

The children in The White Ribbon drive the plot because they are not content with the kind of Kindergeschichte their elders keep telling them, correctly intuiting that they represent an insidious form of social control.

The film’s title refers to the armband that the village’s Protestant minister makes his adolescent children wear, purportedly as a reminder of their native innocence.

But the belief system this symbol exemplifies is based on lies.

When the minister hints that he is aware of the son’s recent discovery of masturbation, he tells him a gruesome story of a boy from a neighbouring village who became ill and eventually died from indulging in this practice.

The minister insists on tying his son’s wrists to the bedframe at night so that he is not tempted to pleasure himself.

While the son does not directly repudiate his father, his participation in his teenage cohort’s acts of rebellion makes it clear how much this “fairy tale” enrages him.

Although The White Ribbon’s mode of storytelling may not be “shot through with explanation”, the stories its grown-ups tell their children are and, to make matters worse, with explanations that are patently ideological.

Haneke doesn’t want us to prefer the Eichwald of his film to our own communities. Nor does he want us to denigrate the place for its carefully cultivated ignorance.

On the contrary, he uses historical distanciation to make a point that transcends history.

We need more stories in which we concentrate on what happens instead of rushing to figure out why it does.

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Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.