Guilt Remains: Sin is inescapable in Michael Haneke's 'The White Ribbon'

Can a film be an exercise in theodicy? Of course few films wrestle with the question of evil in ways that are genuinely satisfying. The Hollywood imperative to portray villains as perverted and inhuman leaves little room for psychological exploration. And the obligation to hunt down wrongdoers by film’s end often gives the false impression that evil is easily contained.

David Fincher’s “Zodiac” is one film that successfully delves into the mysteries of evil without offering easy consolation at the end. (The Zodiac killer, after all, is never caught.) “The White Ribbon,” the new film from writer/director Michael Haneke, is another. But whereas Fincher’s work takes place in 1970s San Francisco, Haneke sets his story in a small German village on the eve of World War I. And he is less interested in the evil in one man’s soul than an evil that can engulf a nation.

The film opens almost like a parable, with a narrator recalling an episode from his youth that still haunts him. At the time he was a schoolteacher in an idyllic German farming town. Most of his fellow villagers work on the estate of the local baron, who presides over his land with benign condescension. A Lutheran minister tends to the flock, and a country doctor makes house calls. The schoolteacher courts an apple-cheeked nanny who cares for the baron’s children. The village, in short, seems out of place in the 20th century. Here we have a community at the tail end of the “long 19th century,” the term historians use to describe the period between the French Revolution and World War I.

Gradually, Haneke unveils signs of the bloody era about to be born. The doctor suffers a broken arm when his horse trips on a wire purposely strung across his field. The wife of a local farmer dies in a mysterious accident. The baron’s son is tortured and his barn set on fire. Suspicion falls on some of the town’s residents, but the perpetrator of the crimes is never fully revealed. Haneke seems more interested in demonstrating that any individual is capable of base and cruel acts. The doctor, for one, shows nothing but contempt for his assistant and midwife, whom he uses for easy sex. When the minister isn’t inflicting physical punishment on his children, he is cold and emotionally distant.

Who is guilty, and who is not, is a question looming over much of the film. At one point the minister ties das weisse band (the eponymous “white ribbon”) around his two children’s arms as punishment to remind them of purity and innocence. Yet a simple ribbon is not enough to distinguish the redeemed from the damned. Haneke is reluctant to absolve any character of sin. Even the town's children are not exempt from the director’s harsh gaze.

Perhaps I should say especially the children. One of the more controversial aspects of “The White Ribbon” is the suggestion that the children could be responsible for the town’s horrors. The boys and girls move in packs, almost like wolves, and they are always close by when something terrible occurs. The idea that children are not innocent, and may in fact be agents of evil, has been proposed in other films before. Yet “The White Ribbon” is not “The Omen” and its implications are finally harder to shake.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film is that the most heinous crime is visited upon the town’s most vulnerable member. I won’t say much more here, only that the crime occurs shortly after the annual confirmation ceremony. Why does Haneke place the two events in such close proximity? Is he making an implicit argument about the inability of organized religion to rein in evil? Could the confirmation candidates be responsible for this horror? It’s hard to say, but the sequence of events leaves the viewer more than a little disturbed.

One way to explain Haneke’s intentions is simply to look to history. A child living in 1914 Germany, of course, is not just any child, but a member of the generation that would vote Hitler into power in 1933. Yet such historical analysis only goes so far. One can argue that “The White Ribbon” is meditation on the calamities that befell one country in the first half of the 20th century. Yet, ultimately, the film transcends the historical period it depicts and enters the murky territory of theodicy. By placing the focus on children, Haneke implies that no one is beyond culpability, that evil can find a home in any heart.

Haneke is infamous for films that test his audience. In “Cache” he slowly unravels a mystery only to leave the viewer dangling at the end. In “Funny Games” he presents an almost pornographic portrayal of violence. The questions he presents in “The White Ribbon” are troubling, especially for a Catholic viewer who believes in grace and redemption. Yet Haneke doesn’t seem to deny the existence of grace altogether. The romance between the nanny and the schoolteacher blossoms, even when various events threaten to drive them apart. And not every child is presented as a Nazi in waiting. The minister’s young son (almost) brings his father to tears when he presents him with a true gift.

Yet these moments are fleeting, and in the film’s final moments Haneke reminds viewers of the vices they have witnessed. The baroness, speaking to her husband just before he hears of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, announces that she cannot abide living in the village any longer. She abhors the malice, envy, brutality and apathy that she encounters among the town’s residents. Her speech plays like an indictment of the German people, but it could just as easily be read as a catalogue of human frailty.

“The White Ribbon” is a bracing argument for the ubiquity of sin. Too bad it has little time for the purity of heart that comes with true forgiveness.

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John Coleman
7 years 8 months ago

 I, too, was deeply captivated-yet also troubled-by the film. It is, one can say, one of the most beautifully photographed films in recent  years. Many saw a resemblance to Ingmar Bergman's great films. At no moment was I anything but mesmerized watching the film. Still, like you, I felt the lack of redemption, compassion, the other side of our sinfulness. In many ways, the director seems too easily to say, " We all were guilty". Whle that may be true, in some sense, like the Nuremburg trials, we also need to calculate, carefully, true metrics or measures of guilt. When all are guilty, somehow we lack the bite for those who are more sinful, more guilty, beyond the human pale of fault. I certainly did not come away from this arresting film bouyed with anything like hope, even whispers of it. That may say something about the Director's nihilism. Thanks for the good review of an interesting and compelling, if flawed, film.

7 years 7 months ago

 The film left little doubt in my mind that the children were the perpetrators of the crimes. They had access on all occasions and certainly had motive. How could the children not be evil when, from the cradle all they ever heard from their father's pulpit was tirades about sin, sin, sin. The whole town was obsessed with how evil humans are and how diligently  that evil must be stamped out. Remember the boy tied to his bed?

I thought one of the most interesting parts of the film came at the end when the minister was confronted with the truth of his childrens' guilt.  He threatened the school teacher and ran him out of town. It was a very sick situation and if it was indicative of German society, it certainly is an indictment of the religion that fostered such depravity by its constant harangues about human sinfulness.

 After seeing this film I am not surprised at how easily German's were led to scapegoat the Jews. Their religious tradition seemed to encourage judgement and retribution.



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