Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thoughts on Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" (2009)

The villains in Michael Haneke films are often cold-blooded, amoral psychopaths that live, undetected, among us.  When accused of a crime, they look right through their accusers.  Other people's lives mean nothing to these antagonists.  It's beyond cruelty.  Those who dare to have empathy for others are looked down at with contempt.  They are gods in their own minds, and we are less than ants. 

Haneke's goal is for us to recognize how dangerous these people are.  Because they are immoral, it is impossible for the rest of us to even deal with them in any kind of legal, or even social, manner.  They don't play by our rules, and if we assume, even for a moment, that that they will be amenable to our rules, then we are doomed.  They will steam roll us.  While we are debating the rules of the game, they have already taken the ball and shoved it down our throats.  And they do it apologetically, almost as if they are sorry for our weakness. 

In Haneke's "The White Ribbon," set in a German village in the year prior to the outbreak of the Great War, a series of violent accidents and crimes go unanswered.  A doctor out for a horseback ride has his horse tripped out from under him by an invisible wire, breaking  the doctor's collarbone.  An older woman who works in the local land baron's sawmill falls through a rotten floorboard and dies.  The baron's young son is found tied upside down to a tree, his back whipped.  And a young retarded boy, the daughter of the doctor's mistress, is found in the woods, his eyes nearly gouged out.

The townsfolk are concerned by these events, but fail to see how they might be connected.  Only when the last boy is severely wounded does the village school teacher, who might represent the village's conscience, begin to notice that some of his students are reacting strangely to the deaths.  We never see the students kill or even injure anyone - although we do see the baron's son accosted after he recuperates fro his own injuries.  What we do see is bland, fake concern for the injured, that probably masks a different motive. 

Ultimately the crimes in the village are never solved.  The retarded boy and his mother, who had gone to the police in the nearby larger town to express her own suspicions of who committed the crimes against her son, disappear.  The doctor, who we discover might be sexually abusing his own teenage daughter, also leaves town unexpectedly.  And the baron's wife flees the village, taking her children to Italy. 

A note found with the last boy suggests the attacks might be punishment for the crimes of the fathers.  The doctor, in addition to possibly abusing his daughter,  might be the father of the retarded boy.  The baron's son might be punishment for accidental death of the old woman.  If the attacks are a form of retribution, however, they fit no logical moral code. 

While the victims, and perhaps the perpetrators, of the crimes disappear, the children who might have committed the violent retribution, and their abusive parents, including the town pastor, remain,  Their callousness, coldness, and antipathy also remain, setting the stage for even greater disregard for human life.  These are the children who would live through the Great War, the collapse of the German economy,  and the rise of a fascist regime in which their own evil would find a place to thrive.      

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