Film: Das Weisse Band: Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.
Human nature is a curious thing. As a species, we are capable of incredible acts of both kindness and violence. It’s certainly of interest to many how an entire people can be convinced of the righteousness of something horrible. How does something the like Soviet purges happen? How did Nazism happen? Michael Haneke’s Das Weisse Band: Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon, the German subtitle translates as “A German Children’s Story”) makes some attempts at it. How correct he is will probably always remain a mystery, although many of the events in the film are based on reality.
The film takes place in a small German village in the year or so before the beginning of World War I. In the village, which by all accounts is a perfectly normal rural village, strange and terrible events start to take place. It begins with a most cruel prank played on the local doctor. Riding home from a dressage lesson, his horse trips, and the doctor is spilled, shattering his collarbone. But this was no mere accident—a piece of wire had been tied between two trees, causing the horse to fall and the doctor to be injured.
Things soon become worse. A peasant woman is killed in an accident, and her son takes his revenge on the local Baron’s cabbage field. While this happens, the Baron’s son is isolated from everyone, suspended upside down in a barn, and caned. It’s proved that the woman’s family could have had nothing to do with this, meaning that someone else tortured the poor boy. A barn is burned down. The retarded son of the local midwife is tortured much more severely than the Baron’s son. The preacher’s pet bird is killed with a letter opener. Eventually, the town schoolmaster (Christian Friedel) suspects that he knows the answer.
It’s not a huge surprise, honestly, even though we don’t really get an answer. It’s the town’s children, led by the oldest two children of the town’s very strict and unrelenting preacher. It’s evident early on that there is something going on with the town’s children—that they are behaving oddly in many ways. There is something particularly ominous about them. These children, after all, became the generation that elected the Nazis into power, became Nazis themselves, and inflicted the Final Solution on Europe.
What’s interesting here is that it’s more than simply acting out. The pranks that are being played on the important people in town—and the children of the important people in town—are particularly malicious, brutal, and nasty. These are not simply ugly jokes, but things meant to wound, maim, disfigure, or kill. There is a sense of organization to them, a sense of purpose, almost divine (or demonic) righteousness. They are meting out punishment to those who deserve it. As the film continues, we learn more and more about the adults in the community. We learn that the preacher is brutally strict. The town doctor is doing improper things to his daughter and is needlessly cruel.
What we also see is that the teacher, while certainly in a position to be at the forefront of the majority of the students’ evil pranks, is left untouched by them. Why? Perhaps because he doesn’t deserve them. The students appear to be malicious where they think they are warranted, or where the victim (the Baron’s son and the retarded boy) has no chance of fighting back. In short, they act with a sort of inspired conviction of righteousness based on their own morality, or as a collection of bullies—precisely how the world views the depredations of the Nazis.
While bleak, the film is not entirely devoid of happiness. The school teacher finds a love interest in the nanny for the Baron’s twins (Leonie Benesch). While considerably younger than he is (when he asks for her hand, he is 31 and she is 17 or 18), they are alike in many ways. Both are introverted and shy, unsure of themselves, and they are almost immediately attracted to each other. While the terrible events occur around them, the two seem to depend on each other as a sort of point of stability in their lives.
Haneke chose to display the film in black and white. It was originally filmed in color, and then converted. This gives the film an interesting look—it looks as if it comes from the period in which it was filmed, and gives it a level of authenticity.
Haneke’s vision is suitably dark for its subject matter. The children are particularly evil in appearance and intent. There is something terrible about innocence perverted, whether willfully or as a victim of willful terror. This film has both in spades. The question that remains is what got into these children to cause them to act in this way. Haneke offers no answers, either because he has none or because the real answer is simply too terrible to contemplate.
Why to watch Das Weisse Band: It’s unrelenting, and awesome because of it.
Why not to watch: It’s messed up in significant ways.