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Commentary

‘The White Ribbon’


     
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WASHINGTON—I don’t know whether it will win the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film—and the fact that a very talented relative of mine is director of a movie competing in the same category is tearing my conscience apart—but “The White Ribbon” by Austria’s Michael Haneke is as good a contender as I can remember.

It tells the story of how a perfect world—a fictitious village in northern Germany dominated by an estate owner, a pastor and a doctor on the eve of World War I—comes apart at the seams.

A series of mysterious events—the string that trips the doctor as he rides his horse, the kidnapping and thrashing of the baron’s son, the burning of a barn, the near blinding of a midwife’s son—punctuates the community’s descent into suspicion and guilt. The episodes of human frailty and cruelty—the puritanical pastor preventing his son from touching himself impurely by binding him to a bed, the doctor having an apparently incestuous encounter with his daughter, the subservient peasant rejecting his children’s plea to avenge their mother’s death—open many possibilities as to who bears responsibility for the strange happenings.

We are never told. The victims of abuse have reasons to bear a grudge, but their own actions, in this tale narrated years later in voice-over by a reminiscing schoolteacher, also inspire doubt. The person or persons responsible for the events sometimes target those guilty of harming the weak, and sometimes innocent members of the community. It’s as if a response to evil with evil was a form of redemption.

Haneke employs a sobriety of means that is the film’s touch of genius. Nothing here is melodramatic. The story unfolds in a matter-of-fact tone and pace that are both chilling and enthralling. The fact that the culprits go unrevealed conveys the ambiguity of human nature that is suggested throughout the film. The pastor, a monstrous disciplinarian who makes his children wear a white ribbon as an emblem of shame, is genuinely moved by his son’s care of a bird; the doctor who imposes humiliation on his own lover also saves lives in the village.

Not even the children who suffer this rigid Lutheran order are spared the moral ambiguity; they are perhaps the secret authors of the mysterious events. This is the generation that a few years later will bring Nazism to power in Germany. Some critics have pointed out that the seeds of fanaticism are planted in these children by the repression of the old order. But the opposite reading is also possible: that the young generation’s inability to find an evolutionary path away from that order will ultimately lead to violence. The narrator hints at this, telling us the story of the village might shed light on what happened later in Germany.

The movie is in black and white, putting a distance between us and the events, and infusing the scenes with psychological undertones. Haneke’s technique owes something to his contempt for the numbing of emotion and moral passion that comes from the world of television today. He is no ivory tower intellectual. He worked in television, as did his father. But he has grown disgusted at the way in which the lowest common denominator has turned television into a facile, self-obsessed little world in which the conventional passes for rebellion, base prejudices are cloaked as freedom, and cheap gossip exonerates the screen from the creative.

He may exaggerate a bit—“60 Minutes” is among the most watched programs in America, Bernard Pivot’s cultural programs were a sensation in France until recently, reruns of “Yes Minister” are still a big hit, and some entertainers put intelligent humor at the service of political criticism. But the Austrian director has a point. His cinematographic technique is the polar opposite of television as the exacerbation of the banal.

Toward the end of “The White Ribbon,” the baroness announces to her husband that she is leaving him for an energetic, sophisticated banker in Italy. The old order crumbles to bits, ripped apart by the irresistible capitalist bourgeoisie. Little does she know that before the liberal sophistication of her banker triumphs, Europe will have to undergo war, totalitarianism, and more war.


Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. His Independent Institute books include Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America, Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.

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