The White Ribbon: Looking Up Amidst Chaos

Optimism is not something that comes to your mind when you first watch Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. It is one of those complex pieces of cinema that can not be fitted into any distinct genre. Set in an idyllic German village just before the World War I, this film is carried forward by a narrator who later turns out to be one of the protagonists of the tale, the village teacher. Apart from him, the village contains some typical characters like the baron, the pastor, the doctor, the farmers and their families. As the narrator unfolds the story, we get to see that the seemingly sleepy and isolated village is suddenly witnessing some mysterious, disturbing and violent happenings. Just at the beginning, the doctor’s horse trips over a wire strung between a couple of trees and the doctor gets severely injured. Did someone plot that? A few days later the wife of a farmer meets with an accident in the mill owned by the Baron and succumbs to her injuries. Was the Baron responsible for it? Then the Baron’s child goes missing and is recovered later in a beaten and bruised state. Was someone taking revenge on him?

As these events set up the basic premise of the film, it takes a break from the grim proceedings and provides us some more insights into the lives of the principal characters. The younger self of the narrator, the teacher is in his early thirties and is trying to woo a young girl who works as a nanny to the Baron’s newborn babies. On the other hand, the Pastor comes off as a strict disciplinarian who ruthlessly imposes his puritanical views on his children. Literally, the “white ribbon”, is basically a ribbon that is tied around the hair of his daughter to signify “purity” in her. He preaches virtues of love but metes out severe punishments to his children for minor offences. On the other hand, the doctor recuperates and returns to the village and soon it is revealed that he also has many dark chapters in his life including his illicit relationship with the midwife. The midwife also has a mentally challenged son who also falls prey to the unknown assailants just as the Baron’s barn is set ablaze by someone.

All these incidents create an impression that something sinister is lurking around the corner and lures the audience into believing that a rustic whodunit is about to unfurl. The teacher gets intrigued by all these disturbing incidents and tries to investigate on his own. At this point, the plotline offers us a bunch of suspects who could be the culprits as well as red herrings. As the film nears its finale, more and more contrasting clues come up. As a matter of principle, what exactly happens at the end of a film should not be disclosed in a review. But actually it is not the kind of film that can be ruined by a few spoilers. Nevertheless, it should be suffice to say that the film ends without offering any definite answers or solutions.

Coming to the technicalities, this film is shot completely in black and white which suites the period as well as the mood of the film. Cinematography is excellent to say the least and it succeeds in creating a sense of claustrophobia even through the open pastures. Another noticeable aspect in this film is the limited use of background music. Only dialogues and atmospheric noises create a very realistic feel without any distractions. The film boasts of a very impressive cast including the children, probably more so because most of these actors are famous or even remotely familiar to me except Burghart Klaußner, as the pastor, who played an important part in Good Bye Lenin.

As far as overall impact of the film is concerned, it works at multiple levels. Haneke uses an unsure and unreliable narrator and drops multiple clues here and there. But in the end, it is not a film that ties up the loose ends. The bizarre incidents are merely the props used to show us the bigger picture. This little village is a microcosm of the society that was going to breed the most dreaded fascists the history has ever known. Superficially, it seems like any other village isolated from the rest of the world with only passing reference to the impending war a few times. But through their constrained yet hypocritical moral values, the characters portray the germination of worse things to come. This subtle yet effective symbolism is the greatest strength of this film. It not only becomes a critique of the early twentieth century German society but also a grim reminder to the possible repercussions of Talibanistic mindset that is brewing up in many corners of this world. One can very well relate to the straight-jacketed and abused children of the film to the ones whose schools are being bombed nowadays. Yes, one can very well argue that it can not be the sole reason for creating such monstrosities as the Nazis but that is where the greatest success of this film lies. It does not give us any answers. It just raises questions and makes us uncomfortable.

It is a film thriving in symbolism that makes it topical and relevant despite its period settings and this is why I find it a reason to be optimistic. When the entire world is in chaos, it is hard to be optimistic. But as I find profound works of art as this, I understand that there are human beings capable of seeing beyond narrow and short sighted biases and look up towards a better world by accepting one’s faults. The White Ribbon not merely criticizes but goes the core of the problem. It is a study so deep and subtle that it may go unnoticed if one views it superficially. It is a film that has to be seen with right set of expectations but it surely rewards the ones who do so.

Rise, fall and rise of a nation: The 20th century as depicted by new German cinema

It is not the first time I am expressing my fondness for modern German cinema. Over the last couple of decades they seem to have churned out films after films dealing with the darker periods of their recent history. While a lot of societies prefer to live in constant denial about certain tainted periods of their past, the Germans seem to be brutally honest and more eager than anyone else to tell those stories. I do not know the reasons for the same. Probably the traumatic experience of the World Wars still drives them to forcefully and dispassionately analyse their past.

Nevertheless, it now seems to be an interesting idea to deal with them in a chronological manner and observe the depiction of the turbulent 20th century by the new age German cinema. For the sake of clarity, the term “new” here is loosely used and I am basically referring to the films made in the last decade or so. That is why films like Das Boot, Europa Europa and Tin Drum are being left out although they suite the theme. I have picked four films to depict four distinct phases purely based on my personal preferences.

The White Ribbon (2009):

Shot in stark black and white with no background score, this film begins with a doctor’s horse tripping over a wire in a sleepy German village. After a few days later the wife of a farmer dies in a freak accident in a mill owned by the local baron. Then a child of the baron is abducted and tortured. This sequence of anomalies continues as the film progresses. Are they being done by someone on purpose? Is one act leading to another retaliatory act of violence and madness? All these events are described through the eyes of a narrator whose younger self is a teacher in the village and who also fancies the young maid at the Baron’s and also tries to investigate the events as they come by.

Well, the director Michael Haneke is actually Austrian. Nevertheless this is a German production and hence I can include it in my list. Furthermore, it is the most unique and allegorical of the four films. While it starts like one, it is not actually a thriller. Haneke lures the viewer into a series of mysteries, makes us wonder what is happening and leaves it there. He is not offering any solutions but he is merely constructing a microcosm of a society moving towards disaster. The serene and sleepy village represents a constrained society where genuine emotions are suppressed with strict social and religious codes. It intrigues you and then leaves you baffled. But what is to be noted is that within a couple of decades these children were going to represent the epitome of fanaticism. Probably Haneke is trying to draw an allegory of raging fanaticism in present times or probably not. Only he can tell us!

Der Untergang (2004):

The Downfall

The kids of White Ribbon’s times are now grown up and things are worse than they could have imagined. Hitler’s reign is now limited to his bunker and apart from a few loyalists there is no one he can trust. There is no hope but they try to hang on as long as possible and wait for the inevitable.

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s The Downfall is not a war movie but a humane drama that shows a character like Hitler at his most vulnerable. A stellar performance by Bruno Ganz as the ageing and defeated dictator drives this film to its expected yet moving finale where we see the final consequences of their fervent jingoism. There is extreme decadence and destruction everywhere as a nation collapses but the real triumph of The Downfall is in dissecting the very psyche of fanaticism.

Bader Meinhoff Komplex (2008):

Bader Meinhoff Komplex

A bunch of disillusioned youth turns revolutionaries, finds an ideology to associated with and wreak havoc, sometimes for a reason, sometimes without it. This is the post war generation in the capitalist West Germany and this is the real story of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a leftist terrorist group of the 60’s & 70’s. They indulge is several high profile assassinations, bombings and other violent activities, only to fall one by one.

Uli Edel’s film offers high production values, well executed action set pieces and gratuitous sex and violence, which makes it an engaging watch whether one is interested in post-war history or not. It covers all the doom and gloom of extreme leftist activism which was abundant with pessimism about themselves and the world around them. Violent extremism still exists everywhere in the world, this film still remains pertinent.

Good Bye, Lenin! (2003):

Good by Lenin

A young son in erstwhile East Germany struggles with a mother in comma while the country goes through epochal changes. The patriotic mother wakes up after the Berlin Wall falls. The son is alarmed that the mother may not be able to absorb the shock of the demise of her motherland. But at the same time he is also eager to find his father who deserted to the Western side years ago. As the nation is inundated by capitalist products from the west, he tries hard to keep his mother unaware of them with the help of his friend and a lovely Russian nurse.

Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye Lenin, as the name suggests, is not only a swan song for the communist regime but an endearing drama encompassing the themes of love, loss and family bonding. Some of the efforts made by the son such as creating a fake East German TV program border absurdity at certain times but that is what makes it even more endearing. A terrific ensemble cast helps in pulling off this rights-of-passage film of a young man as well as a young nation in terms of polity.

* This post is a submission for the Reel-life Bloggers contest conducted by Wogma and Reviewgang.