In Germany's Past, A Harsh Lesson For Now?

Village children from 'The White Ribbon' i i

hide captionPast Imperfect: A stark rural setting and pristine black-and-white cinematography give The White Ribbon a haunting, lyrical feel. The fictional village of Eichwald bears close resemblance to the rural villages of Germany's pre-World War I past.

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Village children from 'The White Ribbon'

Past Imperfect: A stark rural setting and pristine black-and-white cinematography give The White Ribbon a haunting, lyrical feel. The fictional village of Eichwald bears close resemblance to the rural villages of Germany's pre-World War I past.

Sony Pictures Classics

Review And Scenes

A dark meditation on violence and repression, Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon swept the European Film Awards in December and won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last summer. With a limited U.S. release in late December and a wider opening on the art-house circuit due in the coming weeks, the film is generating lots of Oscar buzz.

The White Ribbon has even been well received in Haneke's native Germany, despite harsh themes that some critics say amount to a subtle exploration of the origins of Nazism. The movie centers on the fictional North German village of Eichwald on the eve of World War I. The small, strict Protestant community is soon paralyzed by a series of vicious, mysterious acts. Children are found bound and beaten; a farm building burns in the night; the village's lone doctor is thrown from his horse by a wire stretched across the road.

But Haneke refuses to turn his camera on the culprit or culprits responsible for the baffling acts of violence. As he did in his last film, Cache, Haneke presents an engrossing whodunit and leaves it unresolved. (The narrator, a schoolteacher, suspects a group of the village's children. But is the narrator even reliable?)

'The White Ribbon' director Michael Haneke i i

hide captionUnsolved Mysteries: Director Michael Haneke says he has no desire to interpret his films or resolve them. In the case of White Ribbon, a dark film that explores the effects of physical and psychological violence and repression, Haneke never reveals the perpetrator of the story's crimes — onscreen, or off.

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'The White Ribbon' director Michael Haneke

Unsolved Mysteries: Director Michael Haneke says he has no desire to interpret his films or resolve them. In the case of White Ribbon, a dark film that explores the effects of physical and psychological violence and repression, Haneke never reveals the perpetrator of the story's crimes — onscreen, or off.

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"The film opens with the narrator's words, 'I'm not sure whether what I am about to tell you is faithful to the truth — much of it I've forgotten, and much of it relies on hearsay,' " Haneke pointed out at one Berlin screening. "So the narrator questions the very authenticity of what we are about to see from the very beginning."

Film critic Andreas Kilb says The White Ribbon is unlike most every historical drama he's seen. The movie has none of the elaborate costumes, carriages, panoramic vistas or other eye candy of typical period pieces. You could almost watch it without sound and still be mesmerized. It's a stark rural setting displayed in crisp and haunting black and white, a dusty family picture book come to life.

"I had the instinctive notion that that's what it ... looked like, in its strangeness," says Kilb, who writes for the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "It bears very much a resemblance to what our family albums and our grandfathers' and grandmothers' and great grandmothers' tales sounded and looked like."

'The Sins of The Fathers Surface In Their Children'

We see the children of Eichwald hovering inquisitively near almost every crime scene in the film. Yet even if they're meant to be the perpetrators, the ultimate responsibility may lie elsewhere.

"They are the coming generation; they are the ones that own the future," Kilb says of the children. "So of course what is perpetrated in this film is done by children. But the [responsible parties] are of course the adults. Maybe this is a very biblical notion: The sins of the fathers surface in their children. But it lies underneath the movement of the story in this film."

Burghart Klaussner (left) in 'The White Ribbon' i i

hide captionFact Or Fiction? White Ribbon explores the concepts of authoritarianism, violence, virtue and faith and what role they play in the upbringing of the village children. It has been construed as an exploration of the social origins of Germany's National Socialist movement.

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Burghart Klaussner (left) in 'The White Ribbon'

Fact Or Fiction? White Ribbon explores the concepts of authoritarianism, violence, virtue and faith and what role they play in the upbringing of the village children. It has been construed as an exploration of the social origins of Germany's National Socialist movement.

Sony Pictures Classics
Burghart Klaussner in 'The White Ribbon' i i

hide captionStrictly Speaking: Burghart Klaussner, who plays the film's disciplinarian pastor, believes The White Ribbon explores universal questions about what we teach children about authority, virtue, faith and shame — questions whose answers have implications far beyond Germany's Nazi history.

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Burghart Klaussner in 'The White Ribbon'

Strictly Speaking: Burghart Klaussner, who plays the film's disciplinarian pastor, believes The White Ribbon explores universal questions about what we teach children about authority, virtue, faith and shame — questions whose answers have implications far beyond Germany's Nazi history.

Sony Pictures Classics

The violence in the film is physical, psychological and sexual, and it plays out onscreen juxtaposed against themes of authority, order, discipline and control. Haneke shows us the underlying brutality of the tools used to raise the children: from beatings to the white ribbons the village pastor ties to his sons and daughters to remind them of their sins.

The meditation on Protestant repression, discipline, cruelty and guilt has caused many in the German film press to speculate that The White Ribbon is, in fact, an exploration of the origins of the Nazi era. The children forced to wear white ribbons of purity are of the generation that grew up to wear red-and-black swastika armbands.

"This historical film gives you material to think about where we come from and what our fathers and grandfathers may have had in mind," says actor Burkhart Klaussner, known internationally for his roles in the films The Reader and Goodbye Lenin. Klaussner, who gives a powerful performance as the pastor, believes the film addresses universal themes, including the pedagogy of terror and authoritarianism, not necessarily the social genesis of the Third Reich. But he says the work is certainly grounded in Germany's history.

"It is not specially a film about the roots of the Nazi period, but a film about maybe the roots of 20th century violence as a whole," Klaussner says. "I mean, the children shown in this film were our fathers and grandfathers so, of course, we make up our minds: How does it come that those children 20 years, 30 years later would torture other people and bring violence over nearly the whole world?"

It's almost certainly no coincidence that the fictional village is called Eichwald — bringing to mind both Buchenwald, the infamous Nazi concentration camp, and Adolf Eichmann, Hitler's point man for the mass murder of European Jews. In fact the film was released in Germany with the subtitle A German Children's Story. Haneke says that subtitle won't appear on foreign releases, though.

"Perhaps that is the irony," Haneke said in Berlin. "I decided that people in Germany should understand the film as a film about Germany, but I do not want this to be the case abroad. Elsewhere it should be understood beyond its German framework."

But in tackling such a loaded issue in Germany — how ordinary people can embrace brutality, if in fact that's what Haneke is doing — the director may be making it harder for foreign audiences to look beyond the film's German context.

In writing the script, he deeply researched the history of child rearing in Europe from the Middle Ages through to today. "It makes for fascinating reading," he says.

The potential for brutality in raising kids is an issue that arises most pointedly in Klausser's character, the pastor.

"Everybody who educates their children in this contradictory way by saying, 'When I punish you, I have more pain than you,' I think knows about this contradiction," Klaussner says. "The whole society in the film consists of this sort of a double life: They know that something is wrong, but there is on the other hand a certain amount of what has to be, which is called discipline or called law, or called religion. So you always have to live between those two extremes," he says.

By the end of the film you're almost relieved when World War I breaks out — it offers a chance, perhaps, for the villagers to be punished, or perhaps redeemed, through violence.

So is the film about the social origins of National Socialism? Who, really, is the perpetrator of the movie's brutal acts? Haneke's response may be as perplexing as his unresolved ending. He says his job is merely to ask questions.

"It is not my job to interpret my films," the director says. "My wish is to take my audience seriously, and to give them the opportunity to make up their own minds."

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