the white ribbon


I just watched The White Ribbon a film by Michael Haneke. His other film Cache (Hidden) is a favorite. Cache is about a middle class family who start receiving in the mail surveillance videos of the outside of their house; concurrently the father is contacted by a family servant from his privileged childhood who was somehow abused.

In Cache, Haneke shows us violent acts but resists connecting them: not to cause or effect, nor to justice, nor to retribution. We are left to draw our own conclusions: are the videos connected to the servant? Is  there culpability? etc. It is an idea about life, that we often don’t know, can’t know; that one thing happened may or may not mean that the other thing resulted.


The White Ribbon is set in a small northern German town in the year that Principe shot Archduke Ferdinand an act which we know precipitated the start of the first World War. At the time, the world, Germany included, was predominantly feudal.  Heneke’s town has a Baron at the social top who owns most of the land and employs most of the people. It has a Pastor, a Doctor, a Steward and a Teacher who narrates, who are the defacto leadership of the village. The rest of the village are poor laborers and farmers. You could say that at the bottom of the social pile are the children who play a big role in the film.

On the surface The White Ribbon is mystery movie. It shows us a series of events in which people are being deliberately hurt: to start the doctor is tripped by a wire and thrown from his horse, then a farmer’s wife dies at the mill, the Baron’s son is whipped and left in the forest, a girl is molested by her father, the midwife’s son who has downs has his eyes nearly put out, a bird is ritually killed. We never really doubt that the evil is ‘within’ but we, as we are conditioned to, wonder who is perpetrating. And Haneke, true to his form, doesn’t tell us not even in the end.

You could argue that, like in Cache, The White Ribbon shows us isolated acts of violence which remain obfuscated and unconnected. However there is a theme of connection that is unmistakable. It is a society that is harsh, punitive, judging, severe by design. The Pastor uses the strictest, austere reform Protestantism to guide village adolescents through confirmation. And we see this same group of children playing with knives, killing birds, pushing a child into a stream. We are left with a sense that the austerity is at least tenuously connected to the violent acts of the village children.

In interviews, Haneke rejects the idea that his film is about austerity leading to the infamous fascism of Germany in the 1930s, and insists that it is about the human susceptibility to ideology. It is a much better idea.

For me, the pivot in the film takes place in a scene between the Baron and Baroness, who has just come back from a winter in Italy. She met and fell in love with a banker while there, has come back to Germany out of respect and to say goodbye, and will soon return to Italy with her children. In the scene, which I have pasted below, we see two things: a man, the Baron, so enculturated in his (violent) world that he is blind, and a woman, his wife, who has seen a way out and will eagerly take it. To the very end the Baron sees, according to the teachings of a fundamentalist ethos, his wife as his property: he wonders did the new lover touch her body? The Baroness on the other hand has a plan for escape; she names the violent place: “surroundings dominated by malice, envy, apathy and brutality … persecutions, threats and perverse acts of revenge,” and tells the Baron outright that he is blind.

She is our hope of escape as is the narrator teacher who also sees the underlying violence of life in the village and resolves to leave. I wonder though if anyone else can get out, besides the well to do and the educated. What about the children of the tenant farmers? There is no hope for them in a place that is hopelessly ideological. Unless all it takes is to openly name the violent culture.

Here is the conversation between the Baron and Baroness:

BARONESS (interrupts him): I won’t stay here.
BARON (doesn’t understand): What did you say?
BARONESS: I won’t stay here.
BARON (turns around to her): What do you mean?
BARONESS: What I mean is that I shall leave with the children.
BARON: What do you mean: you’re leaving with the children?
BARONESS: Come on, Armin! It’s not that difficult to understand, is it?
BARON: May I ask you how you plan to do that?
BARONESS (quiet): I don’t know yet. But in any case, we’re leaving this place.
BARON (sarcastic): We.
Look of the Baroness (“I don’t need that kind of irony”).
The maid enters to clear the rest of the table. It leads to a longer PAUSE. The Baron drinks his brandy, goes to the window, waits. As the maid leaves the room, she looks at the Baroness inquiringly.
BARONESS (to the maid): I don’t need you any longer. Thank you.
MAID: Good night, Baroness. Good night, Baron.
BARONESS: Good night.
Even after the maid has left, they remain SILENT for quite a long while. Finally, she says
BARONESS: I returned from Italy only out of deceny toward you. I wanted to give us a chance.
BARON (turns around): You wanted me “to give me a chance”?!
BARON: Well, that’s brilliant! And did I miss my chance? Or what?
BARONESS (quietly): Do you think that will help us solve the problem?
BARON: What?
BARONESS: Your sarcasm.
BARON: Actually, what is the problem that has to be solved?
The Baroness looks at him, then gets up and wants to leave the room.
BARON (suddenly yelling): You stay here!!
She turns around, looks at him.
BARON (softer): You only leave this room if I tell you to do so.
She looks at him.
She goes back to her chair and sits down.
BARONESS: I wanted to spare you this, but you force me to do it: During our stay with Uncle Edoardo I fell in love with a man. He’s from Lombardy, he works in the banking business and helped Uncle Edoardo in a financial matter. He courted me and was also very fond of the children. If Sigi has blossomed and grown so healthy, it’s largely thanks to him. Despite all this, we came back. Because I feel committed to you. But I can’t stand this place any longer. Not so much for me personally, though I can’t say that life with you is exactly thrilling for a woman of my age. But if I leave this place, it’s because I don’t  want Sigi, and later the twins, to grow up in surroundings dominated by malice, envy, apathy and brutality. What happened with Sigi’s whistle was the last straw. I’m sick and tired of persecutions, threats and perverse acts of revenge.
BARON: Did you sleep with him?
BARONESS (laughing scornfully): You don’t understand anything.
BARON: Did you sleep with him?
BARONESS (quietly): No. I didn’t sleep with him.
BARON: You’re lying, aren’t you?


3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I watched that same film not so long ago and was struck by its approach to the story and sensitivity to the ethos of the time.

I also just watched a film called Jagden or The Hunt, a dutch film about a group of friends with of which one is accused of molesting another’s child and the stigmatism which follows regardless of the factors. Extremely good film, highly recommended.

Comment by devtank

I watched the Hunt – I agree, excellent. The ending is particularly haunting.

Comment by Peter Rudd

Interesting – I will have to look for it.

Comment by Peter Rudd

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: