I saw this yesterday. So here’s what I want to know: Is this film basically about the way authoritarianism and guilt lead to a repression and eventually acts of violence and other horrible crimes—i.e. an explanation of how the German could have embraced Nazism and committed (either directly or indirectly) atrocities?
That’s my knee jerk interpretation of the meaning of the film. If that’s essentially what the film’s about, I’ll be a bit disappointed. Having said that, I do think the film is put together really well. I just hope there’s more to the film than what I wrote above.
That’s the impression I got actually. In my original review September, 2009, I said it was very imaginable that these children would grow up to be S.S. Officers.
Yes, I remember reading your review—and feeling disappointed (since you had the same impression as I did). I hoping people who have a better understanding of the film will have a different interpretation (or take) on it.
I haven’t seen the Haneke film but now that you mention this: " …an explanation of how the German could have embraced Nazism and committed (either directly or indirectly) atrocities" I remember YOUNG TÖRLESS and thinking as well that “that these children would grow up to be S.S. Officers”. If YOUNG TÖRLESS “is about something” that could be the banality of evil I guess. Btw i didn’t like the film as I felt it was too pseudo-philosophical at times but I have to say I was glad it didn’t try too much to explain evil straightforward.
Given the case that Haneke tried to explain Nazism why exactly are you dissapointed?
-Given the case that Haneke tried to explain Nazism why exactly are you dissapointed?-
That was the question I was going to ask: if that’s what it’s about why is that disappointing? At any rate, although the particulars of the story are most directly relevant to the rise of National Socialism in Germany, Haneke actually means to suggest that the same sort of mechanisms are at work in fostering other, more contemporary versions of violent extremism.
“I think it’s always in the “small” places that larger events or developments are being rehearsed, in terms of the spiritual and moral climate. My basic idea was to tell the story of a group of kids who make an absolute of the ideals that are hammered into them by their parents and educators. They turn inhuman by appointing themselves as judges of those who do not live by what they preach. If the drill to which you’re exposed is really rigorous,* it becomes a perfect breeding ground for all kinds of terrorism*. You turn an ideal into an ideology, and all those who oppose it or are neutral toward it can be constructed as the enemy.
The choice to tell this story in a small town in Protestant Germany on the eve of World War I has a bit of a personal background, but the main reason was that it allowed the film to implicitly refer to things that went on later in the 20th century, or even today. The personal aspect is that I was the rare case of a Protestant child in Catholic Austria. And the rigor that I encountered in Protestantism as a boy was quite fascinating. It’s much more elitist and arrogant, if you like, than Catholicism, where you have a go-between between yourself and God. The Catholic priest can absolve you and take away your guilt, whereas in Protestantism you are directly accountable to God.
1914 was the real cultural break. In Germany and Austria, the unity of God, Emperor, and Fatherland broke down with World War I, and in many ways World War II and postwar developments can be related to this. At the height of National Socialism, the 8- to 15-year-olds in The White Ribbon would have reached an age where one takes responsibility. But I was also thinking of the history of leftist terrorism, the Red Army Faction. Gudrun Ensslin was the fourth of seven daughters of an evangelical pastor, and Ulrike Meinhof also came from a very religious background. They both had this moral rigor that I found very interesting. I knew Meinhof a bit in the late-Sixties, when she prepared her teleplay Bambule for German Südwestfunk where I was a young broadcast editor. She didn’t appear to be a fanatic, actually. She was charming, highly educated, and pretty funny. Once, her children were late for school, and she told them that if it happened again they should justify it by saying “It’s the fault of capitalism.”
A different context, again with different roots but with a similar moral structure, is that of Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists. What all these groups and individuals share is that ideals are being turned into ideologies to a degree which is life-threatening—not only for other people but also for themselves, because they are willing to die for their convictions."
I would agree with Misael that it’s also important to Haneke to consider the banality of it all, but not even as “evil” per se, but just the casual cruelty, violence, and hyper-rigidity encounter in the everyday life of the church, school, family, etc. For example, even the schoolteacher, who seems for the most part a pretty good guy with mostly good intentions, is so busy pursuing Eva that it doesn’t even occur to him until ridiculously late into the film that it might be his students who are doing all these things, and, even when he does begin to suspect, he still is really unable to grasp the reason why they might because, due to his relationship to power, he can’t bring himself to think of the powerful adults in that way.
from the same interview:
“It’s just as Goethe said: “I have never heard of any crime which I might not have committed.” The balance between good and evil is always there; the question is how circumstances and individual choices make it tip. There is a deep injustice in the world, because not every social or family situation offers the same opportunities to be good, nor the same ability to reflect on one’s own behavior and choices. But for those who have these opportunities and abilities, the question of good and evil is immediately present, and also the question of how to live with something that you’ve done, how to assume responsibility.”
I also like what he has to say about Kiarostami later in that interview, and I think it’s also illuminating in regard to the apparent “simplicity” of The White Ribbon.
I was disappointed because I don’t think the “message” is very revelatory or insightful—that repression and guilt from authoritarian-religious society can lead to expressions of violence and deviant behavior just didn’t seem very interesting or meaningful to me. My blunt reaction: tell me something I don’t know.
The interview segment you quoted brings up another issue that bugs me about the film—although I don’t think this is not the reason I didn’t think more highly of it (although, maybe it is). I’m talking about the negative portrayal of Christianity—specifically as a very rigid, authoritarian, repressive guilt ridden type of religion. Yes, there are Christians who approach Christianity and parenting in this fashion. But I think there are many who do not. Most of the Christians I know, would be appalled by the Pastor and his parenting. This kind of one-sided portrayal—and in my view, this is the way Christianity is mainly portrayed (in addition to the Christian as hypocrite-con man)—that is disappointing.
That’s actually addressed to a certain extent in that interview as well, Jazz:
“The White Ribbon . . . deals more with the surface of religion, its negative political side; the question of God is not raised at all. No religion automatically spawns terror, it’s always the churches and people who use the basic religious needs of others for their own ideological ends, in conjunction with education and politics. Faith per se is something positive; it generates meaning. I for one have no religious faith anymore. Tough luck! Because if you do, you have a different, more contented view of life.”
In otherwords, Haneke’s intent is not to be anti-religious, or even specifically anti-Protestant, he’s more concerned about the ways in which people (mis)use social intitutions and positions of power and the unintended consequences of doing so.
As far as the films “mesage” being insightful or not, my own personal experience is that I rarely if ever encounter extractable “messages” in art that are revelatory. That quality is mostly bound up in the art itself, not the ideological content. I see The White Ribbon as part of an ongoing critique, not just of contemporary culture, but of current modes of cinema as well, so it’s difficult for me to reduce it to a paraphrase. People seem to need to be able to explain things to themselves in terms of good guys vs. bad guys, monsters and evil so that they can just go back to living their lives as usual, when really it’s often the “as usual” that’s the problem.
You said, “In otherwords, Haneke’s intent is not to be anti-religious, or even specifically anti-Protestant, he’s more concerned about the ways in which people (mis)use social intitutions and positions of power and the unintended consequences of doing so.”
Whatever Haneke’s position is on religion in general and religion as an institution, I think the potrayal is negative and a bit simplistic—which is par for the course, imo. Are all religious institutions misused? Of course not, but that is impression this film, and many others, give, imo. In reality, religious institutions do both good and bad—some more bad than others and vice-versa.
Re: “revelatory” insight
Perhaps “revelatory” is the wrong word. I just didn’t think the “message” was very satisfying—if the message is essentially that authoritarian and repressive use of religion can lead to individuals who express themselves in destructive ways. Not only is that not very insightful, but it’s a bit simplistic—especially in terms of “explaining” how Germany eventually came to embrace Nazism. (I suspect that I’m wrong about this interpretation; that I might be over-simplying the film.) Can we say that the Pastor’s approach to Christianity and childrearing was the norm? What about economic and other social factors that lead to the rise of Nazism, etc?
You said, “People seem to need to be able to explain things to themselves in terms of good guys vs. bad guys, monsters and evil so that they can just go back to living their lives as usual, when really it’s often the “as usual” that’s the problem.”
I think a case could be made that this is what Haneke is doing in his films, and I’d like to hear it because I’m ambivalent.
Yeah, I don’t think Haneke means to suggest that what you see in film = explanation of the rise of fascism in Germany, but that the private, quotidian violence of daily life can lead to larger-scale, more public violence, etc.
-Can we say that the Pastor’s approach to Christianity and childrearing was the norm?-
Well, remember you’re talking about nearly a hundred years ago, when corporal punishment was very much commonplace, etc. As to how it links up to Nazism, there was some opposition within the church, but there was also great numbers of the so-called German Christians .
Mind you, German pastors were writing things like this as early as 1917:
“The newer racial research has finally opened our eyes to the pernicious effects of the blood mixture between Germanic and un-German peoples and urges us, with all our forces, to strive to keep our Volkstum pure and closed. Religion is the inner strength and finest flower in the intellectual life of a people, but it can only strongly affect expression in popular culture … a deep connection between Christianity and Germanness can only be achieved when it is released from this unnatural connection, wherever it stands nakedly approached by the Jewish religion.”
That’s totally what I got from the film. That the children would grow up to be S.S. Officers, and there would be nothing that would suit them better. But I suppose there are different interpretations.
Jazz: If one message is unsatisfactory you may be trying too hard to force specificity onto a broader issue.
Take this quote from Haneke:
“It’s not a coincidence that I chose this period of time in which to present the story. This is the Nazi generation, but I didn’t want the film to be reduced to this example, to this specific model. I could do a film about modern-day Iran and ask the same question: how does fanaticism start?”
The last piece of the question (which is itself only one thematic extract of the film) is the important piece. Any conversation it sparks is valid, and up to you (I mean ‘us’) to further. Separate it from Christianity (although that is also a valid criticism), and it may still be, “Tell me something I don’t know,” but you have to admit the question is incredibly relevant to our very interesting times.
-the children would grow up to be S.S. Officers-
That’s probably overspecific, but I know what you’re saying. Some of them may very well have joined the ranks of the Sturmabteilung or Schutzstaffel, some might have become German Christian pastors, but many of them would have become something much less apparently sinister—ordinary German citizens who are willing to accept National Socialism and what followed.
And, by the way, it wasn’t just Germans. This regarding Ingmar Bergman:
“The young Bergman was on an exchange trip to Germany in 1936, staying with a Nazi family when he saw Hitler speak.
“Hitler was unbelievably charismatic. He electrified the crowd,” said the Oscar-nominated film-maker.
Bergman describes his father as being ultra right-wing and his politics rubbed off on the whole family.
“The Nazism I had seen seemed fun and youthful,” he admitted to the author. “The big threat were the Bolsheviks, who were hated.”
The book also documents an attack by Bergman’s brother and friends on a house owned by a Jew. The group daubed the walls with a swastika – the symbol of the Nazis.
But the director has confessed to being too cowardly to raise any objections.
The maker of Fanny and Alexander and The Seventh Seal retained his admiration of Fascism right up to the end of the war.
“When the doors to the concentration camps were thrown open, at first I did not want to believe my eyes.”
interesting discussion. but, let’s remember first that the author is not necessarily the best interpreter of his/her work. in general. saying this, don’t take Haneke’s film for only what he says it was. i believe — and i am sure Haneke would agree — the film is about more than social preps of the coming Nazi-individual, involved, enabler or mere bystander.
to grasp the scope of the film’s subject, one needs to understand a little bit about German history - and that is, believe me, not an easy task. because, saying German, who is that, the German? what is German at all? Germany did not really exist until 1871 (yes not so long ago). only then the Germans were united “into” a Germany. until then, roughly, it had been a scattered heap of kingdoms, dukedoms and what have you.
to cut it short, what is being associated with “the German” as a metaphorical notion of character, originates in the political rise of the Preussians, mainly determined by militarist rule. the name which goes along with this development is Friedrich II. (the great) 1740-86, who (along with his allies) challanged the Austro-Ungarian Habsburg empire. the Preussians stood for military disciplin and the draconic rule of an efficient bureaucracy and were highly respected and at times admired by its friends as well as its foes.
now, here you go: all of the words you might have heard when Germans appear in (preferably Hollywood) films, “zack zack”, “jawoll”, “achtung” and so on, reside in Preussian attitudes. lastly the Preussian was fully identified with “the German” or vice versa. this Preussian spirit has survived long into the 20ies century (Wilhelm Emperor) and later, where it did not point directly towards the military, it was hailed as a virtue.
but underneath the straightforwardness and self rightousness of such consciousness a sort of moral hypocracy established itself which went very well along with (the hypocracies of) the particular German form of protestant religion. this was the ground on which Germany and the Germans staggert into WW One. why stagger? because its position as a world power was at stake — and that was too much for the German soul. you can regard this as a sinking ship mentality, and the more the ship sank the higher the (hypocritical) moral highground of the Preussian-Protestant self-conception. the war then started with a big hurray, so much so, that we, today, can only shake our heads in inconceivability.
back to the White Ribbon. waht in my mind makes the film one of the best works i have ever seen about the state of a people on the edge, is the exhibition of the subliminal forces at work when it comes to the potential of the assumed good that at one point inherently might turn evil. how far the boundaries can be stretched, the coming Nazi regime has then demonstrated. but now we bump into fascism, and that is another story.
The White Ribbon is an excellent and painfully precise description of the ground and the menure of the fundamentally authoritarian (Preussian) society in the beginning of the 20ies century.
just my 2 cents
I read it as have most here, authoritarian repression, children who will be receptive to the rise of Nazism. Cruelty by children to animals is apparently (not surprisingly) a good predictor of future often serious criminal behaviour. Interesting to see Bergman mentioned above, cos i was reminded of the strict and oppressive pastor in Fanny and Alexander, and of course (more ironic with the anti-Jewish 1917 quote above) in that film it took a Jew to come to the rescue. Some turnaround over the years for Bergman.
I thought White Ribbon was a masterly film- with welcome moments of tenderness involving the teacher-narrator and his fiancée; softening Haneke’s cold image
I’m not sure about Protestantism being more arrogant than Catholicism; does it not require some arrogance on the part of a pope or would-be popes to take on the role of such a powerful and almost worshipped intermediary? In Europe, Catholic countries have the extra warmth of the mediterranean climate on their side, for a more cheerful relaxed presentation v the image of colder puritan Northerners. Yet Catholicism has rigid rules and appeal to rightwingers as well.
Many Christian churches have a long history of sexual hang-ups, whether masturbation as soul and even physically destroying, or (heaven forbid!) homosexuality. Christ made no comment on that subject, only “judge not lest ye be judged”, so i’m mystified by the continuing judgemental obsessions of many Christians, but the history of received wisdom runs deep.
“I think it’s always in the “small” places that larger events or developments are being rehearsed, in terms of the spiritual and moral climate. My basic idea was to tell the story of a group of kids who make an absolute of the ideals that are hammered into them by their parents and educators. They turn inhuman by appointing themselves as judges of those who do not live by what they preach”
…exemplifies much of what I find troubling about Haneke’s approach to cinema, based solely on my viewing of this film and Cache. For me, these notions of “small” versus large are somewhat shallow ways to look at the world. Small places and feelings aren’t just important because they lead to the so-called larger events, they are important because they are a part of the most universal human experiences. The larger events are made up of the same small characters doing the same small things. Our debased media sees Hitler, Churchill or Truman as giants but they were just people picking their noses, taking shits and enjoying good food like everyone else. They aren’t at all inhuman. George Bush, if he ran the local Wendy’s would do basically the same things he did as president only with different tools and at his disposal. People aren’t cyphers that represent something except in this kind of intellectual cinema. Haneke, in the two films I’ve seen, strikes me as being too smart for his own good.
Whereas for me this was the first Haneke film i’ve seen that justifies his reputation. I’ve been alienated by his intellectualising and cynical edge; yes in films like Funny Games, it could be said we had (hardly subtle) cyphers to ram home a point, Hidden was subtler of course.but still felt as if he was setting himself above the audience. In White Ribbon i believed in this community even with a message obviously behind it; the acting is fine, there’s a mix between stillness and camera movement, without the sort of mannerisms that may undermine Tarr and others, it’s less self-conscious. It’s quite austere but what beautiful b+w!.
-The larger events are made up of the same small characters doing the same small things-
That’s exactly what Haneke is suggesting, Mike. The reason “small” appears in quotation marks there is that he’s doesn’t mean that he thinks they’re “small” in the sense of being unimportant except as a componant of larger events, but rather that they’re normally perceived as “small” historically because they usually don’t get recorded by historians as events at all in the way that National Socialism and other so-called “large” events do. He’s not saying that these “small” events are important because they lead to the large events, he’s saying that confluences of small events are what comes to be seen as “large” events.
I’ll buy that he may be aiming for what you say, Matt, but I think the focus on extreme behavior and the lack empathy he displays towards every character except for the teacher creates a dynamic that could only be important if it was a precursor to “history.”
“Is this film basically about the way authoritarianism and guilt lead to a repression and eventually acts of violence and other horrible crimes?”
I don’t recall it as being as lacking in empathy as you do, Mike. It seemed to me that Klara, the midwife, the Baronin and her son, and the little girl who has the “dream” are all treated in a manner that invites us to empathize with them.
Haneke’s been criticised by some for often lacking warmth and empathy towards characters in his films, but before seeing White Ribbon i’d read this time he was softer, giving the lie to accusations of coldness, and i do think there’s a mix, with tenderness as i said above, and i found myself properly involved in the events and characters. If we’re seeing characters as representatives of wider society, then church, aristocracy and medical profession don’t come out of the film shining with honour- pillars of establishment repression- compared but the teaching profession (which i presume still did its bit for Hitler, at least once certain undesirables were weeded out).
Thanks for the post. I especially found this line appealing and intriguing: “waht in my mind makes the film one of the best works i have ever seen about the state of a people on the edge, is the exhibition of the subliminal forces at work when it comes to the potential of the assumed good that at one point inherently might turn evil.”
Does the film really do a good job of showing this—a kind of moral righteousness that can easily turn into something evil? That would be great, if it, did, but I’m not sure if that’s the case.
One of the things that weakens this depiction is the characterization of the authority figures in the film (particularly the minister). The viewer has very little reason to sympathize with the minister—for all intents and purposes he is the evil villain in a very cartoonish sort of way. If the film portayed with more positive qualities—i.e. if we could reasonably perceive him as admirable to some degree—the film could have more effectively shown the way genuine and well-meaning moral and religious conviction can easily devolve into evil. As it is, the minister and other authority figures just seem like wholly bad people.
Kenji said, “Haneke’s been criticised by some for often lacking warmth and empathy towards characters in his films…”
I don’t think it’s automatically a bad thing—well I guess it depends on what you mean by showing “warmth and empathy” towards characters.
-One of the things that weakens this depiction is the characterization of the authority figures in the film (particularly the minister)-
Some people—an awful lot of them it turns out—are just miserable bastards, Jazz.
It’s just as Goethe said: “I have never heard of any crime which I might not have committed.” The balance between good and evil is always there; the question is how circumstances and individual choices make it tip.
Haneke on his motivation for making The White Ribbon
You said, “Some people—an awful lot of them it turns out—are just miserable bastards, Jazz.”
OK, but that doesn’t change my assertion. If the minister (doctor, etc.) were simply just “miserable bastards” then the film fails to depict the idea that genuinely devout and morally upright individuals can easily commit evil acts.
This sort of ties in with Blue’s post right above mine regarding “the balance of good and evil.” There really very little balance depicted in the authority figures in the film—which is a weakness, imo.
Btw, I think there are very few people who are purely evil—at least in the ways most people would understand that expression. Even people who appear to be “miserable bastards” behave in decent ways and certainly have the capacity to do so. Had the film portrayed the minister and doctor in a more multi-dimensional way (read: more realistic, more human), I think the film would have been a lot stronger.
Nice discussion here….. and regarding Bergman, Haneke was obviously referencing the scene in Winter Light where the Minister tells his lover what he really thinks of her in the White Ribbon confronation between the Doctor and his housekeeper. It’s an hommage almost note for note.
Christianity is a tool for understanding the world we live in… not a very good one in my opinion… Hitler was using the tools of state to create an environment to achieve his own ends. Christianity was no impediment in murdering Jews it seems? let’s not forget the first state to isolate Jews into ghettos and force them to wear markings on their clothing for identification was… the Vatican.
Religious dogma is a perfect breeding ground for manufacturing acquiescense.
yes and i think many of the “hang ’em, flog ’em” brigade could do well to think on that. The cruel treatment of the bird in the film may nevertheless seem beyond what many of us would do, but if i was born Adolf Hitler with identical genes, environment and circumstances then of course i would have done likewise. Noone is truly responsible for their actions. So i don’t like the idea of evil individuals, however much some people and their ideas may disgust.
Aquiescence- there was talk on a news programme yesterday of a test of people on TV, where 80% were willing to electrocute someone to death merely on the instructions of a man in a white coat. The usual percentage for this experiment is apparently about 65% (it would seem somehow TV encouraged even greater acquiescence). The amount of (especially nationalistic/ military) establishment brainwashing in the media in the UK at present is astounding. This has replaced religious dogma as a main controlling agent, but religion (Christianity anyway) is still largely treated with kid-gloves in respect of its continuation in schools- catch em early in the hope it’ll stick. And in the US creationism is taught alongside or even widely dominant over evolution theory isn’t it? Anyway White Ribbon shows how rigid authoritarianism can create a monstrous reaction as well as control. When i was a kid there was still caning in schools, it was stopped in ‘68 and the headteacher at one school kept moaning about it, telling us how much happier we would be with a good thrashing than some silly punishment that drags out. I wasn’t convinced. In any event he ruled with a rod of iron without the cane, and the mere sound of his footsteps in the corridor was enough to turn us pale with trepidation.
I would have thought it obvious that a warmly loved child is more likely to turn out warm and loving than a brutalised one, but the tabloid press in Britain is forever demanding a more punitive society (with the restoration of corporal, capital punishment and National Service) to create decent citizens.
White Ribbon did strike me as a Bergmanesque film, masterfully crafted recreation of a society, and only surpassed among Bergman films by Persona i.m.o.
i’m not sure if this leads too far, but i should like to introduce a thought on Haneke’s work in its entirety. all his films are concept works. they are not epic, not narrativs. they are models. i find support of this assumption in his trouble to answer to questions concerning the amiable sides of his characters, like: “… isn’t the shy lovestory between the teacher and Eva a wonderful and cheering story…” (freely remembered), which actually doesn’t say anything, leave alone anything substancial about positive identification.
and here is the challenge: to the opposite, how far does the viewers’ identification with the evil sides of his or her own character go? can i imagine i could be the one in this or that persons’ shoes? scientifically this is an important and extremely difficult question if you research on “the silent masses” and the enabling of “evil” systems. this is an even more dramatic question in the research of fascism.
so, why do people so vehemently search for the amiable parts of The White Ribbon? to do justness to who or what? that there are always the good ones too? that everything consists of the dialectics between the most simple dualism of good and bad?
i have a hard time to find any entertainment in Haneke’s films as defined by the contemporary leisure industry. and if there was entertainment, then it would rather be the entertainment that comes from thinking as an active and enjoyable part of one’s life. insofar The White Ribbon is, as all of Haneke’s other films are, a concept film, and above all, a pretty protestant one itself.
-Had the film portrayed the minister and doctor in a more multi-dimensional way (read: more realistic, more human), I think the film would have been a lot stronger-
But that’s more asking it to be a certain type of film than it is assessing how well it does what it does. It’s not especially concerned with realism, which is part of the reason you see it called a parable in many of the reviews. In a way, the doctor, the pastor, the baron and the teacher remind me most of Hawthorne’s characters in stories like “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Minister’s Black Veil.”
The other thing I think it’s important to keep in mind is that the story is not third-person omniscient, it’s from the teacher’s point of view, and he’s looking back at the events that happened in Eichwald with full knowledge of what happened to Germany after, so what your getting is not pure “what happened,” it’s “what happened” as limited by the teacher’s subjective point of view and shaped and edited by his memory of the events and the life experiences he had later.
Yes, i was gonna say that irrespective of whodunnit, or even what Haneke has said over wider issues and meanings, audiences are primed to side with friendly characters, especially narrators, to assume their view and conclusion is the correct one (which doesn’t have to be the case).