THE WHITE RIBBON (2009)
Although many reviewers of this excellent German film interpreted it as a harbinger of Hitler, I though less about Hitler and more about Freud and a great deal about the Brothers Grimm. The story is a bad fairy tale. The White Ribbon takes place in a small German town, a kind of sub-conscious suburbia, presided over by a powerful Baron, who is powerless. The village is on the edge of the Twentieth Century, which couldn’t be further away. Although the Great War is hovering in the wings, the atmosphere of the place is medieval, as though time itself is pent up and struggling to escape. The director, Michael Haneke presented a bleak vision of modern urban life and the secrets that we prefer to keep hidden in Caché, but the 2005 film was upbeat compared to The White Ribbon.
Sociologically speaking, Haneke’s small town in Germany was typical of its time. The system is rigidly patriarchal, from the unquestioned authority of the Baron to the unrelenting oppression of the fathers. The viewer who has read history knows that the coming war will change everything, that the young men will march off to fight for the Kaiser and the young women will be freed from parental controls. One imagines the entire population of these young people finding their way to post-war Berlin and flinging themselves into the decadence of the city. But the Kit Kat Klub is in the future. The White Ribbon is about the last days of an old world, which is rotten to the core.
Women have no rights. They are not even considered human in Germany, nor are the children. These entities are chattel, the property of the head of the household, the father. Although middle class couples in urban areas are limiting their family size by 1913, farming communities still produced stair-step families and these (dis)orderly broods abound in Haneke’s small town. The exhausted and worn-out married women hardly factor and have even less freedom than their children, who can at least run about in their games. The words “happiness” and “joy” do not seem to exist. Corporeal punishment is the proscribed practice. Psychological abuse is so normal that no discourse exists to describe the process of daily wounding. Sexual exploitation of the children, especially the little girls, is the dark secret that floats like pond scum across the environment.
Certainly these people are primed to accept authority, but their behavior does not suggest that the young people would respond well to rule. Indeed they have come together to defy the adults. It is no accident that the first casualty is the doctor, the Healer of the community that now cannot be saved. Autocracy creates its own perversions and total oppression cannot continue unless it is released. The only guarantee is that the escaping psychological pressure will reveal itself as malformed and misshapened. Like the ooze emerging out from under a crushing weight, the suppressed rage of the children spills out over the village. Many young people who are abused retreat into fantasy, but others act out aggressively. In the waning days of the patriarchy, however, such a united front of action—opportunistic and deadly attacks upon the villagers—would be rare. More likely the rage would be held in until adulthood, by which time, the personality would be bent and twisted. However horrible the actions of these children are, however evil they have become, they do not seem like future recruits for Hitler Youth. They have minds of their own.
The Teacher tells his grim little tale, an unresolved mystery, from another time. The world has been engulfed in a war, years have past, but we do not know when he is speaking. He is telling us more than a strange fairy tale about a village terrorized by a gang of children, he is reciting a version of Freud’s “talking cure.” We are expected to take him at his word, but is he a reliable narrator? Freud understood that people speak in metaphors and that language is symbolic. Perhaps we need to see this film in another way. To think of the children as the blond beings out of The Village of the Damned is too simplistic. To think of them as future fascists is to be ignorant of history. The silvery tones of Christian Berger are less like a documentary from the past and more like the cinematography of Henri Alekan in The Beauty and the Beast (1946), lending the entire production a fantasy-like aura. The White Ribbon is the sadistic tie that binds these unhappy people to a nightmare that Freud must decode.
Sitting in his office in Vienna, Sigmund Freud would have listened to the pained revelations of his adult patients. The Austrians who lay on Freud’s couch were the urban cousins of Haneke’s villagers. They were the children of the corrupt and unchecked patriarchy. Freud, unfortunately, had a blind spot when it came to male rule. No matter how sympathetically he might listen to his patients’ nightmare stories of parental abuse, especially sexual abuse, he could not bring himself to believe that the father would betray his child. He dismissed the abuse of children as a fantasy, a child’s wish for sexual relations with the parent. For Freud, the male was superior to the female who could be fulfilled in her femininity if and only if she was suitably passive and submissive and acknowledged the primacy of the man. The father made sure the children were separated from the mother, lest his total authority over them be threatened. The children were taught to renounce the mother and obey the father. The authority of the Victorian father extended downward from God, and Freud never questioned the wisdom of the patriarch.
But what Freud does see, however, is the result of childhood sexual trauma. At least that is how he interpreted the stories. Freud believed that the angst his patients were experiencing was sexual in nature, and he understood that repression could produce odd reaction formations. Of course, Freud was a determinist and attributed the entirety of the human condition to sexual causes. Reading him literally reduces him to a man of his own time who dared to think about what was unspeakable at that time: sex. But if we read him metaphorically or poetically, he was prescient about the pain that people endured and the ways in which people coped with their rage. The White Ribbon created a town, as isolated as if it were a miniature built in a bottle. The domain of the Baron is a petri-dish of psychic wounding. The sexual abuse of a young girl is just part of a larger pattern of cruel and inhuman behavior. One can read the film as a case study of how human beings form defense systems, become hardened and drained of empathy, and project the damage done to them onto others. The only odd aspect of The White Ribbon is that in a small town, children have the opportunity to become a gang. The strange freedom of the youngsters is an unlikely counterpoint to the extreme control they endure. Freud would say that we are reliving a fantasy of “wish fulfillment.” Our fantasy or theirs?
In the end The White Ribbon is not about the future; it is about the past, but a past trapped in the silvery reflections of a mirror. The stories Freud heard in his Vienna office came from adults who carried with them the dead weight of their parent’s sins. With little thought, they recreated their own childhood so that their own children could relive their own nightmares. Abuse, the gift that keeps on giving. Here and there, in The White Ribbon, there are the doubters, symbolized by the Teacher, who must have dimly sensed that there might be a better way. But those who question are in a bottle, trapped in their own time. It would take nearly a century for women and children, and most of all, for men to be freed of the injustice of an unequal and inhuman social system. Where there is no equality, there can be no love. And there is no love in this village. What the Teacher feels for Eva is a tentative delicate flower that could easily be trampled. Indeed, we never learn of the fate of the couple. We suspect that all was lost in the War. The way of life that formed the basis of Freud’s most important writings ended somewhere in the trenches, the place where all that rage could finally be spent.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger