Friday, October 22, 2010

The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band) -- oppression, fascism, and the human heart

Director: Michael Haneke, 2009. (R)
The white ribbon of the film's title symbolizes childlike innocence and purity, the desire of most parents for their offspring. But the movie contrasts that desire with reality, where children and parents alike are anything but pure and innocent.

As in earlier films, Haneke explores themes of cruelty and oppression in a stark and somber fashion. One German critic has called this a "horror drama free from horror images," yet it won the coveted Palme d'Or prize at the Cannes International Film Festival, where it premiered. It went on to win a Golden Globe, and was Germany's submisison to the 2010 Academy Awards.

The film is set in a small German village in 1913, just months prior to the start of the first world war. Narrated by the School Teacher (Christian Friedel) as an old man, he is looking back on a a series of mysterious events that occurred during this time. Acknowledging that he might not get the details right, yet we are drawn into the story.

It begins when the Doctor is thrown from his horse just before he arrives at his home. A thin wire has been stretched between two trees, invisible but effective at felling the horse. He is taken to the hospital where he remains for several months. Soon after a woman falls to her death throuh the rotted floorboards at the local mill. The local Baron (Ulrich Tukur) is blamed by the woman's eldest son but not by her husband. The Baron's son is tortured and the Pastor's pet bird is impaled. But the torture is off-screen and there is little blood.

With each accident or crime, there is a foreshadowing of dread, which is exacerbated by the starkness of the cinematography. Shot in color but converted to black and white in post-production, the film closely resembles photographs from the era. This choice distances us from the characters while keeping us focused on the events. Furthermore, the camera always seems to be just a little too late to catch the action and the culprit leaving us hanging and ignorant. There is a growing sense of unease and a palpable tension.

Most of the adults in the film are never named, simply being referred to by their titles: Baron, Pastor, Doctor. Whereas, all the children are named: Martin, Klara, Sigi. etc. This forces us to look closely at the children while seeing the adults as representatives of the Germans of that time. We realize, too, that these children are the generation that will grow up to become nazis or passive supporters of the Hitler regime of the 1930s and 1940s, a mere two decades later.

This gives us a clue as to the heart and point of the film. Haneke said that his focus is on why people follow an ideology, in this case German fascism, a delusional ideology. He portrays these children as following an idealogical Pied Piper, and seeks to explore the psychological preconditions that would cause them to later surrender their responsibilities to nazism.

In  this village there is an oppressive spirit of fascism manifested by strong leadership, a collective identity, and an air of violence. The parents rule with an iron hand and strict and severe punishment. Most of the parents have secret sins, such as sexual abuse of their children, humiliating and cruel verbal abuse of their employees, or harsh corporal punishment.

One scene shows the Pastor telling his two eldest children he will beat them with a cane the following day. He gives them a day to reflect on their "sins." When he is ready to punish them, he tells them it will hurt him more than them. The Bible tells us, "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die" (Prov. 23:13). But the ritual punishment here seems overbearing. Certainly, discipline of our children will hurt us mentally and emoitionally as it hurts them physically. And the example of Jesus sacrificed by the Father for the sins of his human children (Matt. 1:21) makes that clear. Both the son and the father experienced the pain of a separation that should not have happened but was made necessary by the presence of sin.

Haneke, though, highlights in harsh monochrome the darkness and cruelty that resides in the human heart (Jer. 17:9). The abuses of the parents show that adults are culpable. But the behavior of the children also demonstrate that they are equally accountable. When asked if children were innocent, the director commented, "Children are people. They are no better or worse than any adult. They are merely more helpless. The psychological wounds inflicted on them can be repressed for a time, but everything that sleeps reawakens one day." The oppressed will one day become the oppressor or the passive observer who silently endorses the actions of the Holocaust. None are guiltless; "all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23).

The Church itself comes under attack by Haneke. He sees in the institutional church yet another expression of group-think, where a powerful leader influences the masses by offering salvation to those who would follow. Here the Pastor is as bad as the rest, abusing, threatening and cajoling. The compassion and mercy of Christ, the founder of the church is missing in the "Church" itself. Those who would think differently become enemies of the church.

Of course, this is a caricature of the church. Certainly an indictment can be made of the German institutional church for vocally following Hitler. But there were pastors, like Dietrich Bonhoefer, who saw the error that the church was making and stood up for Jesus and paid the ultimate price: his life.

The true church is made up of the followers of Jesus indwelt by his Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:26). Because these followers are all broken and tainted by sin, we bear the scars and are imperfect. Jesus was perfect; we are not. There will always be a risk of charismatic leaders leading believers away into oppressive or fascist ways of thinking and living. But love and compassion demand a different lifestyle.

The Pastor tied the white ribbon on the arms of his children to remind them of the innocence and purity he required from them. But Haneke shows inexorably that no amount of external symbols can change the heart. Outward obedience is not to be confused with inner faith. Jesus said, "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander" (Matt. 15:19). We are disturbingly cruel.

When the film has run its course, the mystery has not been solved. There are no easy answers. As in his earlier films, like Cache, Haneke gives us clues throughout but leaves it to our imagination to connect them and figure out who committed the acts. If you like clean-cut films with crisp endings, this is not for you. It leaves us in ambiguity, gazing into the depths of our existence like a Greek tragedy. That is not for the faint of heart.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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