January 1st, 2010

Film: The White Ribbon
Crisis of the Old Order

Magnificent. Must see. Glorious black and white. Gloriously and utterly un-American. One recalls why, when we were young, people thought film was a serious art.

It’s a psychological whodunit, to begin. So it’s natural the reviews would focus on the puzzles. Even so …

Spoiler Alert. The rest of this is for people who’ve seen it already. Unless one cares not to preserve a fresh first viewing.

Even so, the lack of comment in the reviews on the treatment of social history is surprising. This is what struck my mind throughout, and seems upon further thought the Grund of the story, the spine of the script.

Confirmation here comes (after dozens of hints) rather late when the Baronness declares she is leaving the Estate, and indeed leaving Germany — and is taking her son, the family heir.

Thus dissolves the Baron’s household, the power atop the village social structure, and the employer of most of its people.

Why does the Baroness bail? Because she has fallen in love with a banker in Lombardy (ie Milan), who swept her off her feet with his energy and sophistication, and was good with the boy.

Thus the Gentry gives way to the Liberals — the industrialists and their bankers, the Capitalists, the Bourgeoisie beloved of Saint-Simon — atop the pile of struggling classes.

Each of the adult male characters speaks for a familiar estate/class of late feudal society. Only the Officer is missing. But his clamor can be heard at film’s end, as his day dawns in 1914.

The Doctor serves well as a representative of Modern Science:

– mistreating, after deeply exploiting, the pre-modern Midwife (his professional precursor in the Middle Age now vanishing). He despises her “stench” and finally wishes she were dead.

– abusing the trust and curiosity of his daughter because, as he explains to the Midwife, his passions are autonomous, ungovernable, beyond good and evil. Robert Oppenheimer comes to mind. Or How I Learned to Love the Bomb.

Whether the Doctor’s unexplained departure at story’s end marks him (and Modern Science) a monster or a black hero turns perhaps on whether one comes to feel he has adopted (acknowledged?) the Midwife’s retarded son or, prefiguring the Nazis, has euthanized him. That his own boys are named Adolph and Rudi (Hess?) puts a point on the question but doesn’t decide it.

And note, most broadly, that while the children of the Minister and the Doctor are in close congress, their fathers seem to exist in separate towns. Or ages. Like Christendom and its successor Modernity.

As for details, a dozen otherwise odd and/or disjointed events in the film find justification (beyond gratuitous thrill-making) and make simple sense when considered as social history or pathology.

E.g., the Minister’s suppression of his son’s sexuality. The boy’s face (on the poster above) says it all: One of these decades that kettle’s gonna blow.

His name is Martin. Dubbed, no doubt, by his earnest father in honor of Luther. But as quickly as that came to mind I thought of Martin Bormann. Portrait of the Sadist as a Young Man.

Also interesting, in this vein, is the crudely bon-vivant and violent Steward of the estate, occupying his position of petty power between the Baron and the Peasants. In southern Italy such pastoral players were the root of what blossomed, as Noble control faded, into the urban mafias.

And, indeed — the Steward has been cast (Josef Bierbichler) as a hulking dark and garrulous Italian type, utterly distinct in appearance and behavior from the reserved Saxons that populate most of the screen. In particular his joking with ladies about sex stands out. Are we are to guess he was hired from Uncle Eduardo’s estate in Lombardy? Perhaps to keep the increasingly restive Peasants in line?

The film compares, then, to Bertolucci’s 1900 (in essence, not style).

To The French Lieutenant’s Woman — though much more Fowles’ novel than the film.

And to Ivy Compton-Burnett, who across some 20 novels, all set in late Victorian mansions peopled by failing grownups and bitter, biting children, told an epic story of social decline and shifting class loyalties and behaviors.

Both Bergman and Dreyer of course also come to mind, for various reasons, re both style and concern to tell social history, even if one believes Fanny and Alexander were happy kids.

It seems, then, that A.O. Scott, in particular, missed quite a big boat here. He seems to have been mezmerized by the spectacular surface psychology — and thus left to complain that Haneke told a shallow story (oh so familiar in America) that blames the Nazis on “child abuse.”

On the contrary: The surmise of the narrator (the now-old Schoolmaster) that this story, even if less than perfectly true, may help explain what the kids went on to accomplish in their prime, working hard and playing hard, seems well supported: The dissolution of the Old Order, and the Blow in Sarajevo (the first war and its disastrous sequelae), gave the deviant Nazis an opening to power.

Thank goodness it couldn’t happen here, where a prosperous and populous Middle Class exercises sovereignty in a vibrant constitutional democratic — uh, hmmm …

Finally, no reviewer I’ve seen has suggested what, after two viewings, seems clear: the gentle, somewhat bumbling Schoolmaster, played by Christian Friedel, is intended to be understood as Jewish.

The kind features of his face, his distinctively dark hair, his distinctively broad education, all support this reading, but also:

– his bitchy chastisement by the Baronness about church music and the church calendar;

– the otherwise pointless evasion of his would-be father-in-law at the matrimonial negotiation, who remarks that the teacher’d be better off working in his father’s shop in town (where your kind belong); and

– at story’s end, the abrupt and monstrous dressing down he suffers from the Minister after suggesting that the latter’s children are sadistic criminals. Denounced as “repulsive” and threatened with prison, ordered to “get out” and never return, he timidly acquiesces.

Thus fails, too — when the Other challenges at a stroke both Bible and Blut — the structure of Assimilation.

That the Schoolmaster when young was a Jew well at home in Bismarck’s young nation-state casts new light on his opening sad hope of somehow explaining “what happened later” as an effect of the alienating contradictions of old Christendom and its dissolution under pressure of Modernity’s miracles and wonders.

“The world’s not going to collapse.”

Twice we hear this during the year the Schoolmaster is required to wait for his bride: a naive but golden girl from a nearby town, daughter of a straight-shooting German Arbeiter, the very best that society has to offer a man of the Schoolmaster’s station.

But then comes the news from Sarajevo, and the marriage — consummation of Assimiliation — doesn’t come off.

Instead the erstwhile groom goes to war, for the Kaiser. And afterward, he tells us, never returns to the baronial village, returning instead to his hometown, to take over his father’s tailor shop. Which leaves the tinkling of Kristallnacht in one’s ears as the story fades to black.

We first met the Schoolmaster with his arm around Karli, the retarded boy, framed in the schoolhouse door — as the gang of kids, somewhat distant, snidely look on and sneer. It’s difficult not to think here of the Third Reich’s select victims. The kids will go on to burn both books and teacher.


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  1. ed says:

    1. The children of the Reagantime suddnely leap to mind. With their inpenetrably deep ignorance of … almost everything except the most shallow and young of Modern economic doctrines. Prelapsarian Adam Smith and nothing more, not ideas nor the hard experience of the industrial centuries since. Majors in Marketing and Business Administration. Their passions waxed under Bush-Cheney.

    How long before the country is unfit to live in?

    2. Here’s an interview with Michael Haneke, the writer and director.

    I note and like that he breaks into English to exclaim that there can be (are) answers to the film’s puzzles — having been baited by the Semiotics sophomore conducting the interview with a question supposing the structure was cleverly done to permit no solution.

    He talks at length about dissolving feudalism, as a prime subject of the film, and seems to think its central theme is the downside of ideological politics.

    After two viewings I don’t see that film SAYS much on this theme — and the interview here is again in tune, suggesting the author was happy to merely provide ground into which one might wander and meditate on the theme.

    The ideologies explicit in the film are that of the Lutheran Minister and, to a lesser extent, his the Doctor. Anything else, past, present, future, one has to supply oneself. And Scott, the NY Times reviewer, seems to have come empty handed.

    That is, one can imagine the Baroness joyously exploiting her new life in Milan, immersed in revolutionary arts and sciences, a Thoroughly Modern Millie …

    Meanwhile the lone Baron, bereft of progeny, fiddles about the estate like Tolstoy’s stand-in in Anna Karenina, before finally blowing his brains out, or perhaps dying in a trap laid by the Steward’s eldest son.

    One can imagine the ideas and practice of Cosa Nostra then taking root in the village — while young Adolph and Rudi, departed at story’s end with the Doctor, busy themselves founding the Nazi Party in Munich, reunited there with Martin …

    But one has to do all this on one’s own. Haneke’s ski jump.

    January 4th, 2010 at 9:12 pm

  2. ed says:

    From the interview linked in the Comment above:

    Q: It strikes me that in “Cach√©,” and perhaps in this film as well, there literally is no answer that explains what is happening.

    HANEKE: [In English.] There could be an answer!

    Q: Well, we can point back at you, the director of the film. Who is making those videotapes and sending them to the family? You are!

    HANEKE: [Laughter.] Every interpretation is right.


    I take this as license to care about the answers that are present or may be surmised with some foundation.

    The “disturbing events” unfold as follows:

    January 5th, 2010 at 12:10 am

  3. ed says:

    1. The Doctor’s horse tumbles over a tripwire, nearly killing him.

    The narrator tells us that Anna, the Doctor’s daughter, “saw this from her window” and immediately rushed out. Hmm … And her grief, as she tries to comfort her young brother, seems oddly overwrought with more than the mere panic of loss.

    We meet the Schoolmaster and Karli, framed in the schoolhouse door. The Gang of Kids (sans Anna) nearby sneer at the retarded boy — or also at their teacher? — and the narrator tells us he thought it strange that the kids then marched out of the village in a troop.

    This gang, including Minister’s children Karla and Martin, and Steward’s rough sons, then appears outside Anna’s window. She opens it and looks down upon them, and something strange is in the air.

    The next day Anna and the Midwife confess to a policeman complete ignorance about the accident — and the tripwire’s disappearance.

    Later we find the Doctor is sexually abusing Anna. But there are three indications that this abuse did not start until after his return from the hospital, post accident.

    The Midwife we find has been involved with the Doctor for a long time. Upon his return from the hospital she professes love, but then finds his mistreatment of her unsurprising, and declares him “retarded” like her son, Karli.

    And that Karli may be the Doctor’s bastard is in the air.

    It would seem that we might suspect the gang of kids, sans Anna. Or Anna or the Midwife, alone or in league.

    Best guess?

    Not Anna. The sexual abuse has not yet occurred, and even as it occurs she seems allied with her father.

    Possibly the Midwife — for her abuse at the Doctor’s hand has long been underway. Considering her allegorical identity — the Medieval Medico, precursor to the Modern Scientist — suggests her attempt to kill him might be imagined parallel to the Furies resisting the New Rational Law of Athena in the Oresteia — in each case with reasons rooted in a more Motherly grasp and feel for humankind.

    Or, it could be the Gang of Kids (sans Anna). Motive? Nothing much in the film to provide one. Abstract Evil of the sort Christian fundamentalists like to talk about.

    At the Social History level, the kids as Young Nazis don’t fit the bill, in that the Nazis embraced and forwarded Modern Science on the biological front — genetics, cancer …

    Note that we first meet the Minister scolding his children for being late for dinner the evening of the Doctor’s accident — and the Minister complains fiercely of their “lying excuses” for being late.

    Why did they lie? Wouldn’t a story about trying to comfort or help Anna have rung with Christian virtue? This again seems intended to make us think the kids strung the tripwire.

    The next day we find Martin walking across the bridge railing, as if undergoing a Trial by Fire. He guesses, when done, that God doesn’t want him to die yet.

    Did guilt about the stunt with the Doctor’s horse prompt this trial? Or was it a reaction to the Minister’s verbal thrashing, and the certain threat, that night, of ten strokes with the cane?

    Why would the Young Nazis want to harm the Doctor?

    Is the Midwife the best guess?

    Does Anna perhaps know the Midwife did it? Did she aid or consent for reasons yet occult?

    January 5th, 2010 at 12:14 am

  4. ed says:

    2. The Peasant’s Wife dies in an apparent accident at the sawmill.

    After two viewings this seems indeed an accident.

    Possibly one might suspect the Steward or his sons of arranging the accident, as a battle in a little war underway before the film’s story starts.

    And, indeed, the Peasant’s Eldest Son points in this direction with his angry question at the mill, inspecting the “rotten” floor, as to who assigned his mother there that day.

    In any case, the death serves to ignite long simmering resentment of the Peasant’s Eldest Son for his family’s lowly state. He destroys the cabbage patch, and argues violently with his father about how to respond to the death.

    The honorable father then turns the son in, for the cabbage business, presumably by telling the Steward.

    And when the son is released from jail, he finds that the family has been banished from the baron’s employ — economic disaster.

    Thus, the Peasant Mother’s death is the first movement of a series that rents and all but ruins her family.

    If it was an accident, one may yet find just complaint re the family’s ruin in its long pre-existing economic and psychological condition — the condition of the Serf.

    This aspect of the Old Order was alienating, contradicted, an obstacle to the quest for Freedom (to speak as a Young Hegelian or a Marxist of the day). The Eldest Son’s anger has some basis, even if he’s wrong about his mother’s death.

    If the Steward’s sons had something to do with it, then the Mafioso aspect of his social identity may influence one’s view of what’s really going on here. It’s another imperfect aspect of the Old Order, one that, when the Noble power atop the pile fades — or sleeps — comes into its own. Possibly here, in the mother’s death.

    January 5th, 2010 at 12:35 am

  5. ed says:

    3. The Baron’s Son, Sigi, is hung by his heels in the sawmill and beaten.

    The site — where the Peasant Mother died — suggests the Peasant’s hot-head Eldest Son, he who decapitated the cabbages.

    But the Baron tells us he is satisfied the Eldest Son is innocent of Sigi’s beating.

    Earlier the Peasant’s Second Son entered a room where his mother’s body was on view, looked at her face — then went to sit beside his elder brother in mourning, arm in arm.

    It seems, then, the best guess that Sigi was beaten by the Peasant’s Second Son, assuming some responsibility for the family’s pride after his older brother’s freedom of action had been curtailed.

    When the Baron exhonerates the Peasant’s Eldest Son — at the meeting in the church — the Second Son is present with his Father, as the two begin to leave the meeting having taken offense at the Baron’s opening remarks.

    The Baron calls them back — declaring the Eldest Son innocent of Sigi’s beating — and as the Second Son sits back down on his bench … One may imagine things going on in his eyes.

    If not he, then the best candidates seem the Steward’s Sons, whom later — on screen — take Sigi’s whistle and throw him in the river. Mafioso behavior asserting itself shamelessly.

    When Sigi returns with his mother from Italy, the next spring, as he steps to enter the Baron’s home, the Steward’s Sons call him from afar, to come to them first. And he does so.

    One might think this was concern, by the Steward’s Sons, to be sure that Sigi doesn’t rat on them for the initial beating.

    Hard then, to choose, here, between the Peasant’s Second Son and the Steward’s Son.

    January 5th, 2010 at 1:02 am

  6. ed says:

    4. One or both of the Steward’s Sons try to kill their infant brother.

    Earlier, at the infant’s birth, the older son exclaimed bitterly at the news that it was a boy rather than a girl — and was furiously smacked in the puss by a nurse in attendance (not Mrs Wagner the Midwife).

    Now, in dead of winter, the Doctor saves the infant with a late-night house call.

    As he departs, the older son heaves a sigh of relief. The other son, at the window, watches the Doctor depart and looks to the older with ambiguous intent.

    Erna, the Steward’s lovely daughter, later more or less tells the Schoolteacher of this attempted murder, relating it as her first prophetic dream.

    January 5th, 2010 at 1:18 am

  7. ed says:

    5. The barn goes up in flame.

    Heneke, in the interview, offers this as something that might be deemed an accident.

    By this time the Baronness and children have departed to Italy.

    And the Doctor has returned from the hospital, and has examined the tree where the tripwire was strung.

    His eyes flicker with the question of who did it — and he then comments on Anna’s advanced age (fourteen) and likeness to her mother.

    He does nothing to accuse Anna, but speaks to her diffidently. If one feels he suspects her of complicity — with the Midwife — in the crime, then not only his mistreatment of the Midwife but also the sexual abuse he now begins to practice on Anna might all be imagined as redress.

    As the barn blazes, the Steward’s kids watch from a nearby window.

    January 5th, 2010 at 1:19 am

  8. ed says:

    6. The Peasant Father is Murdered or, perhaps, commits suicide.

    Murder — by his Eldest Son — or suicide are both plausible.

    The mis en scene suggests murder, however: the man is not hanging from rafters, but rather hooked onto the wall of the shed, barely off the ground, and it seems he has been garroted.

    It is the Peasant’s Second Son — who earlier mourned arm in arm with his rebellious older brother and then may have beaten the barons’ son Sigi — who discovers the body.

    We see his shock, and all sorts of thoughts running through his head. Then he slowly closes the shed door, clearly having decided not to make a fuss, to go forward allied with his older brother.

    Who else? The Steward’s Sons? Possibly. They were also a second-thought possibility as murderers of the Peasant Wife/Mother. But in each case the other alternative seems more likely.

    January 5th, 2010 at 1:30 am

  9. ed says:

    7. Karli is Tortured, probably Blinded.

    By this time:

    – Easter has come, the Baroness and Sigi have returned.

    – Karla has been humiliated by her father, the Minister, at Confirmation Class, has fainted — and has ritually killed his Peepsie, her father’s parakeet.

    – The Doctor has cut off relations with the Midwife in harsh fashion, and has been seen abusing Anna.

    – And Erna, the Steward’s Daughter, has told the Schoolmaster of her prophetic Dreams.

    Now, Karla, Martin and the Steward’s Sons are all Confirmed by the Minister.
    A party ensues. And that night Karli is tortured.

    The cops question Erna, rejecting her story of prophetic dreams.

    Days later, as the Midwife leaves town forever, the gang of kids (sans Anna) hover at the window of her house, concerned for Karli, they explain.

    So who tortured Karli?

    The balance of considerations point to this gang we saw sneering at the Schoolmaster and Karli at the open: Karla and Martin, the Stewards Sons, and a few others we don’t get to know well.

    But I’m not yet satisfied. Will have to see the film again. The attack on the eyes is so symbolic and so practical — depriving the legal system of a witness? (Karli cannot speak, after all) — that one wonders …

    Could it have been Anna? An effect of entering into relations with her father?

    To somehow assert primacy, in her father’s favors, over the Midwife, or even to attack her father indirectly if indeed Karli is his bastard?

    This mystery bears further thought. Another viewing.

    January 5th, 2010 at 1:44 am

  10. Mara says:

    I just watched this awesome movie and have so many analogies for the events. I enjoyed reading the ones above.

    There’s no doubt the children are involved somehow, if not outright the guilty parties for nearly all the crimes. The leader is Klara, whom is mentioned rarely in forums for analyzing the story. She is hauntingly the ringleader of the children throughout the entire movie.

    Klara is smart, a liar, a leader and very capable of looking innocent in a snide way. Any adult who poses a question is giving a batty-eyed “I don’t know” while her brother or other children look to her before answering questions. She has all the potential of becoming an SS or Nazi leader as far as females could go in that time.

    How astute that you recognized the teacher as being Jewish. The best tailors in the world are Jewish, the profession he returns to after his father’s death. The teacher is so innocent, helpful and caring to the point of blindly opening his mouth to the wrong person to tell of his assumptions. The pastor already knows his children have failed to meet his strict standards, and thus, he forces the white ribbons or hands tied to bed posts. He reeks of deliberately seeking evil in every child, particularly his own. That only serves to confuse his children more, as they are humiliated and punished constantly…And his recourse to cover the problem?

    Threaten the teacher if he ever speaks of it again. This goes in line with the Jewish being told to be silent throughout the entire Holocaust nightmare, and thus starts the “silence of the lambs”.

    I dearly loved this movie and it was tremendously thought-provoking. I have friends and family who just refuse to watch any sub-titled films. What a shame….they are missing out on European history and things outside of the US. Perhaps because I’m originally from Europe, I find foreign films more fascinating.

    July 4th, 2010 at 2:19 am

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