In Germany's Past, A Harsh Lesson For Now? Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon is a dark meditation on physical and psychological violence — and on the role repression in the name of virtue may play in the shaping of violent personalities. Set in a German village on the eve of World War I, the film's exploration of religion and authoritarianism has led some to call it a subtle look at the origins of Nazism. It may, however, be much more.
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In Germany's Past, A Harsh Lesson For Now?

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


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

The new German film "The White Ribbon" is a dark meditation on physical and psychological violence and repression set at the turn of the last century. Some critics are calling it a subtle exploration of the origins of Nazism. Despite that painful undercurrent, "The White Ribbon" has been well-received in Germany.

BLOCK: It's also done well elsewhere. At this year's Cannes Film Festival, it won the top prize, the Palme d'Or. It's also generating a lot of Oscar buzz as a contender in the foreign language category. "The White Ribbon" opens in American theaters over the coming weeks.

From Berlin, NPR's Eric Westervelt tells us more about the movie.

ERIC WESTERVELT: "The White Ribbon," or "Das Weisse Band," centers on the fictional village of Eichwald in Northern Germany on the eve of the First World War. The small, strict Protestant community is soon paralyzed by a series of mysterious and vicious acts. Children are found bound and beaten, a farm building burns in the night. The village's lone doctor is thrown from his horse and injured by a wire stretched across the road.

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Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: The narrator, a schoolteacher, suspects a group of the village's children and questions them.

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Unidentified Man #1: (As character) (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: Director Michael Haneke refuses to turn his camera on the culprit or culprits in the baffling acts of violence. As he did in his last film, "Cache," Haneke presents an engrossing whodunit that is left unresolved.

At a screening in Berlin, Haneke pointed out that the narrator may be unreliable.

Mr. MICHAEL HANEKE (Director, "The White Ribbon"): (Through translator) 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. So the narrator questions the very authenticity of what we are about to see from the very beginning.

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Unidentified Man #2: (As character) (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: "The White Ribbon" is different from most every historical drama that film critic Andreas Kilb has seen. The movie has none of the elaborate costumes, carriages, panoramic vistas or other eye candy of typical Hollywood or British period pieces. It's just a stark rural setting displayed in crisp and haunting black and white, a dusty family picture book come to life.

Mr. ANDREAS KILB (Film Critic): I had the instinctive notion that that's what it may have looked like in its strangeness. It bears very much a resemblance to what our family albums and our grandfathers' and grandmothers' and great grandmothers' tales sounded and looked like.

WESTERVELT: We see the children hovering inquisitively near almost every crime scene. Yet, if they are the perpetrators, the responsibility may lie elsewhere. The violence in the film is physical, psychological and sexual, and plays out in unison with themes of authority, discipline, order and control.

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Unidentified People: (Singing in foreign language)

WESTERVELT: Director 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 and to try to teach them to strive for purity.

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Unidentified People: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #3: (As character) (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: Please forgive me, father, sir, please forgive me, the daughter says. But Andreas Kilb, with the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, says the children become the secret rulers of this tightly wound village.

Mr. KILB: They are the coming generation. They are the one that own the future. So, of course, what is perpetrated in this film is done by children. But the responsibles for the deeds 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.

WESTERVELT: The meditation on Protestant repression, discipline, cruelty and guilt has led some 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 the white ribbons of purity by the pastor are of the generation that grow up to wear the red and black swastika armbands.

Mr. BURGHART KLAUSSNER (Actor): This historical film, of course, gives you material to think about where we come from and what our fathers and grandfathers may have had in mind.

WESTERVELT: Actor Burghart Klaussner, known internationally for his roles in the films "The Reader" and "Goodbye Lenin," plays the village pastor. Klaussner believes the film addresses universal themes: the pedagogy of terror and authoritarianism. But he says the work is certainly grounded in Germany's history.

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

WESTERVELT: In fact, the film was released in Germany with the subtitle "A German Children's Story," something director Michael Haneke says will not appear abroad.

Mr. HANEKE: (Through translator) Perhaps that is the irony. 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.

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

By the end of "The White Ribbon," you're almost relieved when World War I breaks out, as perhaps it offers a chance for the villagers to be punished or 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.

Mr. HANEKE: (Through translator) It is not my job to interpret my films. My wish is to take my audience seriously and to give them the opportunity to make up their own minds.

WESTERVELT: His job, Haneke says, is merely to ask questions.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin.

BLOCK: At our Web site, you can watch clips from "The White Ribbon" and read NPR's review of the film. You can also find reviews of other films that are in theaters now. Those are at

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Unidentified People: (Singing in foreign language)

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