Poison in the well. I don’t know if this qualifies as its own genre or a trope or whathaveyou, but I have to classify The White Ribbon as a poison-in-the-well film. I can distinguish this from plague-upon-the-land, which draws on causative metaphysical force, and something’s-rotten-in-the-state-of-Denmark, which also does so but only in passing to focus on social corruption directly; yet both rest on the theme of perverted Nature, what one theology calls “sin.”
The White Ribbon is completely past all this, thoroughly modern, if you will. I’m not sure if it would be correct to say that it is a critique of authoritarian political power—the patriarchy in the family, the church, and the vestiges of the feudal manor—but it is strictly sociological. And the fact that the film ends with the outbreak of WWI is surely not trivial to its meaning. Full-out and without doubt, the topic is a terrorized society. And it is terrorized by itself. There’s poison in the well.
Who put it in? The plot of The White Ribbon asks this question but does not answer it. All the horrible incidents that take place are never explained. Who committed the crimes remains an unsolved mystery. But the lack of forensic resolution in the film is not an invitation to dwell in the mystery for its own sake. This is not an Agatha Christie conundrum lacking a final scene. The point is that the town only has one well and everyone is drinking from it. What matters is the poison they have all ingested.
The brutal and shocking things that happen are certainly that. But their occurrence is the epitome and not the essence of what is going on. They are the fullest manifestation of the loveless lives lived by each and every person in the program; well, just about, and more on the exception below. It’s a festival of mutual abuse, contempt, disgust, suspicion—all the passions are negative. And they are revealed after much passionless, nearly soul-less going-through-the-motions. You tagged The White Ribbon as Fanny and Alexander (how could you!) meets The Tin Drum (fair enough). I offer: The Crucible meets Sátántangó.
Of course, the character of the schoolteacher is the exception to which I alluded above. His budding romantic relationship with the nanny is the only source of fresh water in the film. This legitimates his character as the narrator speaking in the past tense. He is given a sufficient degree of objectivity to report the story after he has escaped from it. As I have complained to you previously, I generally have difficulty accepting voice-over narration as a device in film. More often than not it indicates a failure of cinematic imagery. This is not the case for The White Ribbon, which is very striking in this department. It is instead a weakness with respect to the storytelling point-of-view given the thematic perspective of the film. I propose that the latter demands that the former be third-person omniscient. Haneke adopted this for Caché (Hidden) to convey the terrible sensation of total surveillance to great effect.
This is not to suggest that The White Ribbon is an inferior work. Far from it. Although it did not emotionally affect me as strongly as Caché, it is in some ways an even more powerful film. I would like to see more of Haneke’s earlier productions and I look forward to what he will do next. He is clearly an excellent craftsman on the technical side and he has made me want to become better acquainted with his weltanschauung, one of which I get the feeling he actually has. And not just because he’s Teutonic.
The White Ribbon draws much of its power from the setting. Dropping us into this German village on the brink of the First World War, we know that the people we are looking at, particularly the children, could one day, less than two decades hence, play a key role in the rise of National Socialism. So we are on the lookout for clues, attempting to connect the dots. On everyone’s lips is the obvious question: How do the events in this story provide a plausible backdrop for the emergence of Hitler’s Third Reich? Every look and gesture, every utterance and action is tainted by our knowledge that these youngsters could be future Nazi Youth, or even the backbone of the Nazi Party. So when we look into these children’s large yearning eyes we wait to see how the innocence will be lost, and who is to blame.
Who is to blame? Everyone. Parents, religious leaders, social leaders, all let down the side, and with relentless vigor. Almost all of the most heinous people in the film are men, using their authority to crush all who do not measure up to their lofty standards. The result is a climate of fear that suffuses all levels of society, from Baron down to laborer, adult through child. And the greatest tragedy is the effect it has on the children. During one of our first encounters with a child, he walks on a rickety guard rail, perched precipitously above a long drop, and speaks of wanting to die. And he is not the only one. Throughout the film we witness children trying so damned hard to be what the adults want them to be that it should be little surprise (and yet it IS) that they turn out to be just that. Watching their transformation (or is it merely our impressions of them that transforms?) is painful, but instructive. As Wordsworth noted, over a century before this story takes place, the child is father to the man.
As for your contention that we don’t know who poisoned the well, this may or may not be true. The schoolteacher seems pretty confident that he has solved the mystery, but we cannot take his conclusions as gospel because he has not proven himself the most observant or insightful of narrators throughout the film. Indeed, it is these limitations that allow me to give Haneke some latitude with his generous use of voice-over narration throughout the film. As you rightly note, voice-over is often a crutch for lesser filmmakers who don’t know how to convert the words into images in interestingly cinematic ways. However, this is less so with The White Ribbon, which boasts some of the most striking imagery in recent memory. Haneke is a master formalist, and his cinematography, compositions and editing in this film are first rate, propelling all aspects of the story adeptly. Instead of annoying, I found the teacher’s narration to be at times rather amusing, as his occasional obtuseness created an interesting bit of narrative dissonance from time to time; at times, the words do not exactly match the pictures.
Finally, regarding my Fanny and Alexander parallel, allow me to clarify. I am not comparing TWR to the loving, life-affirming half of F and A, but rather to the paternalistic, Scandinavian Christian, life-denying half when the poor kids are basically prisoners of their evil stepfather.
As a result, the film has a real icy coldness to it, and it is difficult to find an entry way into the story from an emotional standpoint. I suppose we are supposed to identify with the teacher, who not only narrates the film but also, as you note, proves himself the exception to the town’s cruelty by being pretty much the only person capable of love. However, he is also a bit dull, easily bullied and doesn’t actually manage to accomplish much while in the town. So, while he is the best we’ve got, that isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. The children ultimately prove to be a false hope, as the more they get emotionally and physically abused, the more their Children of the Corn ways grow creepier and creepier, leaving me on the outside looking in for much of the film. Don’t get me wrong, while viewing The White Ribbon, I was certainly admiring the hell out of it, and I was most definitely intellectually engaged by it. I just wasn’t deeply moved by it.
As I touched on the critique of authoritarianism in only a cursory and tentative way, I appreciate you confirming my sense about this. I think you are correct to concentrate on The White Ribbon as a case study of the breeding grounds for fascism. In doing so, you make a chronological error that to me demonstrates the effectiveness of the film with respect to what you properly identify as central to it—the children. You suggest that these kids in 1914 might be the Hitler Youth of 20 years hence. Of course, this defies temporal logic. They would have long since become adults. But I think you made this mistake because the youth in The White Ribbon strike us somehow as Hitler Youth already. You also say that these kids in 1914 could play a key role in the rise of National Socialism (the first Hitler Youth date back to the early 1920s) and even become the backbone of the Nazi Party. Of course this makes chronological sense. Yet, your temporal slip seems to me to be your deeper insight. Made by accident, it nevertheless goes to the heart of how The White Ribbon works on us. The proto-fascism is consciously grasped because it is unconsciously grasped as fascist already.
I did not mention it in my initial review, but you know I did elsewhere, that I found the performances of the young actors in The White Ribbon to be outstandingly good. You have helped me understand why I was so gripped by them. What is more, you have helped me understand why my 15-year-old German niece and I—after watching the film together—inevitably found ourselves talking about Hitler afterwards. By the way, she soon figured out that the film is set not in Germany but in Austria, a distinction that may not mean anything to North Americans, but is obviously meaningful for Germans and Austrians, the latter of which is Haneke. And you have helped me understand why The White Ribbon made me remember the Czech film from the mid-1960s, The Shop on Main Street, about a community divided after the installation of Aryanization laws. As far as I could tell, The White Ribbon does not even hint at the topic of anti-Semitism. Still, the random acts of cruelty that run throughout the film are all too susceptible to being channeled into institutionalized scapegoating. On this interpretation, the missing link between The White Ribbon and The Shop on Main Street is Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery. (I’m unfamiliar with Children of the Corn, but I’m guessing by referring to it, you already made this point.)
You are welcome to be less or even not at all bothered by the voice-over narration. I just want to pick up on your observation that the conclusion to which the school teacher jumps in 1918 about the guilt of the children is not to be taken as gospel. That’s an understatement. What is key is that the school teacher recounting the story years later does not and cannot corroborate his 1918 conclusion. The narrator does not prove the character. Indeed, it is impossible to know which representation is more trustworthy, which is a better source of objective truth. The character points his finger at the children—but are they really to blame? The narrator speaks of the gossipy excuses made to cover up what really happened—implicating even more than the kids, the adults who control them. Attempting to sort this out is misguided in my estimation. It’s called Totalitarianism because the society as a totality is involved.
Fanny and Alexander. Yeah, yeah, I understood why you made the comparison. But you should understand why I object to it. And not just because Bergman’s film is so full of life-affirming material. It’s also because even in the life-denying middle section of that film, it never goes over to the Children of the Corn, (or does it? you tell me). There is resistance, struggle, hopeful signs of life—from the children! Their oppression has not taken over completely and they never do get with the program. This is no totalitarianism in the making. This is war. And the kids win. [PAUSE] OK, so I lied. It IS just because Fanny and Alexander is so full of life-affirming material. But what a “just because.”
Both of us appear to have experienced The White Ribbon more intellectually than emotionally. I wonder why this is.
And (finally) Dan:
The temporal error you refer to is my Tin Drum moment, I guess. My error is founded on the feeling I get that these children will remain forever trapped in this pre-adolescent state in angry defiance of the notion that they need to somehow grow up and beyond this damaged condition. As for your Lottery reference, yes, The Children of the Corn (a Stephen King short story) is likewise built around the notion of ritual sacrifice during harvest, except here those doing the sacrifice are children, and those being sacrificed are those entering adulthood. All of this assumes that the teacher knows something we can never be sure of, and these kids are indeed the perpetrators of all this cruelty. However, given the cruelty inflicted on them by the adult hegemony of this small town Austrian (thanks for the clarification!) society, it’s hardly a shock to see the acorns falling next to the trees.
I am in total agreement on the child performance front. The actors do some remarkable work here; never once was I aware of a young person acting. Their actions and reactions were (often devastatingly) authentic. Such a refreshing break from the sort of look-at-me self-conscious adorability that passes for child acting in most Hollywood films.
Excellent pull on the Shop on Main Street front. In The White Ribbon, this apparent division, caused by the torture inflicted by the unknown assailant(s), is subsumed so completely by the adults that it appears as if the town is dealing with matters. Getting things done. Making things right. Yet, the torment goes on and on. Some of Haneke’s shots of the building’s facades, so dark, brooding, but upright and solid, clearly telegraphed his feelings about these people’s attempts to shove back the truth, and put up a brave, united front. So, in the end, the finger of blame MUST be pointed right back at the adults. Even if it IS the children committing these heinous acts, they are only doing as they’ve been instructed AND their acts are being swept under the proverbial rug by adult authorities who have no interest in looking into that deep, dark, poisoned well of truth.
Dan Jardine is the publisher of Cinemania.
Ben Livant is a jazz lover and good friend of Dan’s who he has been lending movies to for a while now.