EH: You’re right that The White Ribbon is even more ambiguous than Caché in its mysteries. Furthermore, despite the connections between the two films, they are essentially very different forms of mysteries. In Caché, though we don’t know who’s sending the videotapes, we can probably assume that the tapes are originating with a single source, with one person or several people working together, while in The White Ribbon, evil seems to emanate from everywhere and nowhere. Moreover, though whoever’s sending the tapes in Caché is psychologically tormenting Georges and Anne, the purpose of this harassment seems to be to call attention to Georges’ past, suggesting that there’s a moral imperative behind the videos that is utterly lacking from the cruel, violent acts that occur in the small town of The White Ribbon.
Indeed, The White Ribbon might be Haneke’s most unsettling film. This is the Haneke film that epitomizes his bleak worldview, in which most people are essentially cruel, violence is senseless and unavoidable, and even children can’t remain innocent for long when subjected to the pointless cruelties of their parents. Haneke has often been interested in the generational reach of violence: the way that the Schobers’ daughter is sucked into their self-destruction in The Seventh Continent, the deaf-mute girl unable to communicate her torment in Code Unknown, the mostly silent boy who tries to sacrifice himself in Time of the Wolf, and the ambiguous way that Georges and Majid’s pasts affect their sons in Caché.
Here, the passing of warped values from one generation to the next is made especially explicit. When the mentally handicapped boy Karli (Eddy Grahl) is savagely beaten in the woods around the village, whoever attacked him leaves a suggestive note beside the body: “for I, the Lord, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of their parents to the third and fourth generation.” After another beating of a child, when the son of the Baron is hung from a barn’s rafters, the schoolteacher’s fiancée Eva (Leonie Benesch) asks, “Who does things like that? Beating a child like that?” The unspoken answer is that this violence is an outgrowth of the more routine physical and psychological violence that runs throughout this town, often directed, like many of these crimes, against children. Many of the town’s fathers beat their children for minor infractions, the town doctor is sexually abusing his daughter, and the pastor ties his son to a bed at night to prevent masturbation. The town’s children are victims of both horrible public outbursts of violence and the more private torments inflicted by the adults in their lives, and it’s implied that this general atmosphere of neglect and punishment warps these children, who seem to be responsible for at least some of the film’s horrors. They learn violence and hate from watching their parents, and pass their own suffering on to others.
JB: Sometimes. In one significant exception, the farmer’s son disobeys not only his father’s example of acceptance but also his direct orders when he destroys a cabbage patch in retribution for the mysterious death of his mother, who fell through a floor while working. And in other cases the boys and girls seem to have evil brewing within them. The pastor’s children, for example, come off as suspicious and deceitful even before the oldest children are adorned with white ribbons to symbolize their misbehavior. But appearances can be so deceiving, and if nothing else that’s what Haneke underlines again and again and again. Re-watching The White Ribbon for this conversation, it struck me that it would actually make for a surprisingly appropriate double-feature with Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, which is all about demonstrating just how little we often learn from seemingly straightforward little bits of evidence. For instance, in the case of the doctor, who gets injured in the early going when his horse trips on an almost invisible wire strung out in the open, it seems certain that someone must have deliberately tried to injure the doctor—perhaps even the peculiar kids, one of whom is seen shortly afterward walking along the railing of a bridge, tempting fate to see if God wants him to die. But by the end of the film, enough seemingly random disasters have happened that it isn’t difficult to imagine that the doctor’s fall was an accident (perhaps the kids were playing with the wire but didn’t intend to harm anyone) or that maybe the kids weren’t involved at all (the doctor has people in his immediate family who would have motive to try to hurt him, we eventually learn).
The way I’m describing the movie, you’d think it was a Lynchian head-trip. But it isn’t. This is a different kind of ambiguity. It’s less abstract, more elliptical. We never struggle to make sense of what is happening, we simply can’t explain why it happened, or who caused it. We don’t have all the information, and as much as we fumble around in the dark hoping to find it, at some point we must accept that we know very little. And I think that’s part of the lesson Haneke is trying to teach here: that even if things could be explained, sometimes we must accept that we’ll never have enough information to understand.
EH: That lesson is especially important in terms of the specific historical era that Haneke is evoking here. Much has been made of the fact that the film is set in the years before World War I—towards the end of the film, the villagers learn about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which is what decisively pins down the time period—and that thus the generation of German children depicted here would be adults, and likely Nazis, during World War II. But far from imparting a simplistic moral about these childhood traumas setting the stage for the horrors of the Third Reich, the film is suggesting, as you say, just how difficult it is to understand the nature of evil.
Certainly, Haneke isn’t drawing any simplistic conclusions here, but The White Ribbon is subtly seeded with suggestions of what’s to come for this country and these people. The actual white ribbons, which the pastor puts on the arms of his children to remind them to do good, ironically evoke the armbands of the Nazi era, these supposed icons of childhood innocence and purity tangled up with more sinister connotations. Similarly, after the funeral of a local farmer, Haneke cuts to images of pristine, tranquil snowy plains while the narrator says, “None of us suspected it’d be our last New Year in an era of peace, and that this year would bring a radical change, of a magnitude we couldn’t foresee.” The snow, so pure and white, drapes the film in a crisp, clean look that is very much at odds with the ugliness of the events that occur within these white expanses.
JB: Agreed. The white ribbons also, of course, remind of the Jewish Star of David—the idea of marking those who should be punished or cast out. On that note, there’s no doubt that historical context is important here. After all, this is Haneke’s only period piece, so it’s safe to assume that he isn’t choosing this period at random, and, as you point out, there are references near the end of the film that pin down the time period clearly. But it’s also no accident that for the majority of the movie’s running time, Haneke is mostly cryptic about the setting (time and place); Haneke isn’t implying that the Nazi movement sprang up from this little village so much as he’s suggesting that we could look at any little village at any point in history and find evil pumping through it. Having said that, I also don’t think it’s an accident that Susanne Lothar appears in this film as the verbally abused midwife. Sure, Haneke routinely reuses actors from film to film, but it seems especially fitting that Lothar, who was the target of so much verbal and psychological harassment as Anna in Funny Games, once again finds herself playing a woman who gets viciously mistreated as sport. It’s as if Haneke is suggesting that before there were the two young thugs of Funny Games there was the doctor of The White Ribbon, and so on to the beginning of time.
Speaking of beginnings: Way back at the start of this conversation you brought up the “slim hopefulness” Haneke often subtly provides “that the conditions depicted in these films are not permanent.” Sure enough, there’s some of that in The White Ribbon, thanks mostly to the character of the teacher, who somehow manages to meander through the village and its tragedies without getting touched by them. So as we head toward the end of this discussion, I wonder what you think of The White Ribbon’s final shot. The film closes with the teacher providing narration about the start of the war, his enlistment and even the war’s aftermath. Meanwhile, Haneke gives us a fixed shot of the villagers assembling for church service, looking straight ahead toward the altar and, thus, straight into the camera. The teacher mentions that this specific event was, for him, a rather positive occasion, because he knew he was about to be joined with his future wife. But he describes the service, occurring just after declarations of war have been announced, as a “solemn” affair and says, “Now everything was going to change.” Ed, the change that’s coming to these villagers is the arrival of war, but it’s hard to dispute that this is a village in desperate need of change. So, I’m curious, do you consider the end of The White Ribbon to be hopeful, mournful or something else?
EH: One interesting thing about this film is the way that the schoolteacher and Eva seem to exist apart from all the evil and violence plaguing this town. The schoolteacher is the one narrating the story, but none of the violence affects him directly, and apart from his attempt to intervene at the end by telling the pastor he suspects the kids, he is simply an observer. The romance between the schoolteacher and Eva is the embodiment of hope in The White Ribbon, precisely because these characters are so separate from the rest of the events in the film. Even the tone of their scenes together is quite distinct from the bleakness of the film as a whole; there’s a sense of sweetness and even some low-key comedy in the scenes between these two shy, kind people who slowly, hesitantly fall in love with one another.
In one scene, the schoolteacher goes to propose to Eva and is comically frustrated by the insistence of her stern father that they should wait a year rather than marrying immediately. In another scene, the couple goes for a picnic and Eva resists his idea to go off the road to an out-of-the-way spot, not because she thinks he’d actually take advantage of her but because it wouldn’t look proper. Their story is a rare bright spot in a film that is otherwise almost entirely unrelenting in its depictions of people treating each other with cruelty. (Another such character is the pastor’s youngest son, who touchingly offers to replace his father’s bird after another of the pastor’s children kills it.) There’s an old-fashioned morality and sense of tradition in this romance that, despite the historical setting, seems to be missing from the rest of the town—except perhaps in the much colder, more violent but equally old-fashioned form of morality embodied in the pastor’s treatment of his children. We have a tendency to idealize the past, to think that the past was a simpler and sweeter time, but The White Ribbon strips away that sentimentality, retaining almost exclusively the harsher aspects of the past. Only Eva and the schoolteacher, with their proper, sweet romance, embody the idea of the past as a more innocent time.
Throughout the film, there are these brief flashes of genuine human decency, as contrasted against the general atmosphere of abjection, and also against the pastor’s hypocritical conception of what it means to be good and pure. Without these examples of goodness and purity, The White Ribbon would be even darker and more cynical about human nature. As bleak as the film is, Haneke at least includes some characters who don’t give in to the general malaise, who simply go about their lives, fall in love, try to help other people when they can, and don’t let the corruption of the other townspeople touch their own souls. At the same time, the film would almost be easier to take if not for these bright spots in the darkness. The very fact that the evil of the town doesn’t touch everyone, that there remain good people who aren’t corrupted, creates a sense of danger hanging over the end of the film. You ask if the end of The White Ribbon is hopeful or mournful, and really it’s both—hopeful on the personal level for the schoolteacher and his fiancée, mournful in that Germany, and Europe with it, is about to be plunged into decades of war and suffering. But there’s also a sense that the mournfulness, the evil that runs through the film, is poised to smother the much more delicate and precarious goodness represented by people like Eva and the schoolteacher. There’s hope here, to be sure, but whereas in Time of the Wolf the light of the signal fire seemed to be holding back the darkness, here the light seems very much in danger of being snuffed out, the darkness of history closing in on those characters whose decency and innocence runs against the tenor of their times.
JB: The last words of the schoolteacher’s closing narration, the ones he finishes uttering just seconds before his on-screen character signals the church choir to start singing, are, “I never saw any of the villagers again.” I think you’re right that this conclusion is both hopeful and mournful, and also grimly beautiful—contradiction in terms intended. The White Ribbon won’t be Haneke’s last film, but since it’s the final film of this discussion I couldn’t help but notice how neatly that line of narration could apply to the end of so many Haneke pictures, much the same way that Werner Herzog noted that “Into the Abyss” could have been the title of almost any movie he’s ever made. Looking back, the endings of Haneke’s films are almost always about some kind of escape. Sometimes it’s an escape through suicide (The Seventh Continent, 71 Fragments and The Piano Teacher), sometimes it’s through some other kind of death (Funny Games) or near death (Time of the Wolf) and sometimes it’s through the acceptance of past wrongs (Benny’s Video and Caché). But over and over again, Haneke’s films end with characters reaching some kind of turning point or breaking point—and depending on how they reach that point, sometimes the ending seems mostly hopeful (say, Benny’s Video and Time of the Wolf) and sometimes it seems just sad (Funny Games, 71 Fragments and The Piano Teacher), and sometimes it’s a combination of both (Code Unknown and The White Ribbon) and sometimes it’s hard to tell (Caché).
Given how often the only escape in Haneke’s films is death, it would be easy to decide that he’s excessively cynical about this world and pessimistic about our ability to change. But instead, he strikes me as a filmmaker who is cynical about this world and yet admires those who don’t succumb to the gravitational pull of its darkness. Haneke’s films aren’t hopeful; that’s going too far. But, indeed, there’s hope in them. And given that his films, as diverse as they might seem from a distance, so consistently wrestle with the same issues, I get the sense that maybe Haneke himself is trying to persevere and is using cinema as his motivation to keep going.