FILM JANUARY 30, 2010
The White Ribbon
Sony Pictures Classics
Michael Haneke, whose new film is called The White Ribbon, has given it a subtitle: A German Children’s Story. That is warning enough. This Austrian director is by now so distinctively established as a connoisseur of darkness--with Funny Games, about neighborliness as murder; with Caché, about the past seeping into the present; with The Piano Teacher, about the animal in the civilized--that his dainty subtitle must be seen as a deadpan tease. And so it proves.
The white ribbon itself, in a German village in 1913, is tied on children by their parents as an incentive to virtue. Haneke, who wrote the screenplay with Jean-Claude Carrière, begins with the voice-over of a former schoolteacher in that village speaking today, who says he must tell us what happened back there. The teacher as a young man then appears in the story. The older voice-over lends historical perspective and, as is usual with this device, eases transitions. As usual, too, it strains credulity, since the story includes much that happened when the teacher wasn’t present--he mentions some things that he couldn’t even have learned by hearsay; but by now the device is a workaday easement.
Haneke’s first achievement is to set a small society in place. This village is part of the tail end of feudalism. Virtually all the local farmers depend to some degree on seasonal employment on the farms of the local baron, who is in effect the government of the area. Next in rank is the pastor, authoritative and strict; the last of the eminences is the doctor, middle-aged and troubled (including by sexual troubles that the teacher couldn’t have known). The teacher, important though he is to the village and devoted to his work, is just an employee.
While Haneke is creating his very orderly society, he is also launching his anarchic drama. It starts with the doctor riding home on his horse one day. The horse trips on an invisible wire. The doctor is thrown, injured, hospitalized. The police briefly investigate the wire business--clearly a trap--but find nothing. (The police also investigate subsequent incidents and find nothing.)
The film then keeps three levels of action in play, the conventional and two others. In the first line, the teacher proposes to a seventeen-year-old girl, and her father insists, following custom, that the couple wait a year to make sure his young daughter is certain. Some other equally conventional matters of the day: before children go to bed at night, they kiss their parents’ hands. The pastor lectures his adolescent son, Martin, on self-abuse, warning him of disease and death. But along with these run-of-the-village scenes come two ugly series. In one of them, a small boy is found tied up and beaten bloody, and a mentally defective boy has his eyes poked out. We know who the perpetrators are; we actually see some of the atrocities committed. The pastor’s daughter kills his pet bird; a boy who is whittling a whistle is peeved because another boy has a perfect whistle and throws him into a stream, nearly drowning him.
The teacher is the only one in the village who begins to discover the truth about the children. All this violence, including the horse accident, is being done by some seemingly normal youngsters. Certainly these children are sternly used by their parents, which has fomented secret resentments in them. (The pastor has Martin’s hands tied to his bedstead at night to keep him from masturbating.) But there is small connection between their treatment, not abnormal for the time, and their terrible acts. It is as if the parents had flipped small switches that set off explosions of latencies in their children. This seems a true Haneke theme--mass malevolence lurking in bland-faced children, waiting for a tick.
On the other hand, a second set of violent actions is more predictable. After a woman dies by falling through a rotten floor in the baron’s sawmill, her son then goes out with a scythe and destroys the baron’s field of cabbages. Later the baron’s barn burns down. This second series of actions, where there is some match of motives and results, makes the children’s depredations seem especially grotesque.
The film doesn’t carry through with investigation or punishment. It simply stops--when the news comes about the Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo, and everyone’s attention gets switched. In the last image of the film the whole village is gathered in their church; in the voice-over, the older teacher tells us that he was drafted, later left teaching, and became a tailor--and never saw any of these people again.
Once again, Haneke is concerned with uncomfortable verity about human beings. When he has shown what he wants to show, he concludes--in an almost abrupt way that, curiously enough, underscores the gravamen of the film. Presumably he set his story in Wilhelmine Germany because, before the so-called Great War, moral standards were more blazoned and prescriptive--a white-ribbon time. Moral twists were, as far as possible, denied. (When the teacher ultimately tells the pastor about his children’s behavior, the pastor not only denies it furiously, he threatens the teacher with prison.) Haneke has set his film in 1913 as if to suggest that essentials of behavior have not changed much: only hypocrisies have changed. No more white ribbons.
The one bothersome element about the film is in some degree extrinsic. At the very start, the old teacher says he is telling this old tale because it “may clarify things that happened in our country.” Several critics have expanded that wisp of a remark, concluding that the malevolence in the film predicts the rise of fascism twenty years later. This seems to me worse than far-fetched. It diminishes the horror of the whole Nazi era. What makes the blood freeze when we look at newsreels of the millions cheering Hitler is that most of those people were otherwise fellow human beings, raising families affectionately, filling jobs faithfully, and so forth, just like millions in other countries. What was terrifying here was that this could happen with otherwise recognizable people. The population of Germany, the membership of the Nazi Party, was not composed chiefly of people who had been exacerbated to malevolence when children. To think so is to lessen the terror. To turn the Germans into warped malevolents from the start is a step toward excusing them. Besides, if this film is a forecast of Hitlerism, why is there not the slightest mention of the anti-Semitism that was common in those days? A considerable gap in a prediction of the Nazi state.
Haneke himself gives very limited support--seemingly ex post facto--to this pre-Nazi view of his picture. In a recent interview in Cineaste, he refers to “the misunderstanding that gets incurred when critics receive the film exclusively as a film about German fascism…. This narrow reception would be a misinterpretation.” No, this film stands stronger shorn of its alleged political prophecy. The White Ribbon fulfills its subtitle: it is a German children’s story, with the implication that this behavior in children is not limited to Germany any more than his previous films were only about the places where they were set.
As for Haneke’s handling of the material, his directing is immaculate. Every moment is the product of a penetrating mind and a steady talent. His casting makes us think he found these people living in that village. Outstanding are Burghart Klaussner as the self-assured pastor, Christian Friedel as the perturbed teacher, and Leonie Benesch as his shy beloved. The film was shot, neatly, by Christian Berger, in black and white which is so apt that it seems the only way it could have been done.
Creation is set in 1859 yet is a timely film. The subject is Charles Darwin and On the Origin of Species. Not many weeks go by in our lives without word of some school or state tussle about the teaching of evolution. Jon Amiel’s film, with a screenplay by John Collee, means to tell us something about Darwin himself and the gigantic controversy that he began. He did not set out to crack theology, though he very soon found out that he was possibly doing it.
He had first studied medicine but then spent five years traveling around the world on the H.M.S. Beagle, an exploratory scientific voyage for which he was engaged as a naturalist and about which he wrote an important book. Back in England, married and comfortably off with family money, he moved to the country, where he and Emma Darwin had ten children, seven of whom survived childhood. Spurred by what he had learned on the Beagle, he began his work on the evolution of life. He bred pigeons and other animals. In a London zoo he became (one can say) friends with a young female orangutan and studied her learning ability. He soon learned, from arguments with the local pastor, about the gravity of his research. Thomas Huxley, who admired him, says, “You have killed God.”
This registered with Darwin, of course, but it neither deterred nor inspired him. He was not a storybook courageous hero of science. He was, first of all, something of an invalid, with some loony ideas about treatment. (He built a water tower on his estate so that he could undergo hydrotherapy--drastic showers.) His scientific determination sagged, and his ten-year-old daughter Annie had to prod him. When she died, it shattered him: he began to see her in apparition, still prodding him. Finally he wrote his great book, but even then he was not sure about publishing it. He gave the manuscript to his wife, a religious woman with whom he had much disputation, and asked her to determine its fate. A few days later she handed him back the manuscript, wrapped and tied for shipment to a publisher, and we see him deposit it in the cart of the local postman.
If we suspect inflation of family details in the film, we can be reassured by Randal Keynes, great-great-grandson of Darwin, who wrote a biography of his ancestor. Keynes says of the film-makers: “They had a freedom that I did not have when I wrote my factual biography. They made very good use of it because they brought out truths … that I could only imagine, that I could only guess at.”
The film italicizes what is fairly common in history: how nearly accidental some of the great turning points have been. Suppose Mrs. Darwin had advised her husband to burn the thing. The theory of evolution would have emerged anyway: others had been working on it, and Alfred Russel Wallace, as Darwin knew, was reaching many of the same conclusions. But it was Darwin who did it and who caused an immediate storm, which presumably will always keep thundering near or far.
Amiel’s direction is serviceable enough; the dialogue has the scent of the period; the music by Christopher Young is incessantly lush. Paul Bettany has a tough job as Darwin to earn and keep our sympathy; despite Darwin’s various vacillations, he succeeds. Jennifer Connelly, Bettany’s actual wife, plays Mrs. Darwin and spreads some color in what might have been a pallid role. The total result is a fascinating view of quotidian lives surrounding an event that many see as the secular replacement of Eden.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic of The New Republic.