Tuesday, February 2, 2010
The White Ribbon-"roots of evil"
This 2009 film is a retrospective narrative of events in a German village in the year preceding World War 1. The narrator is a man of advanced years, who in the film is a teacher of around thirty years. The year of the movie is 1914 and the film concludes with the voice-over informing us of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke and heir apparent while on a visit to Sarajevo, the event which triggered of the first war. The unprecedented events which swallowed Europe in the following decades form a kind of silent backdrop of the movie. Whether or not the movie metaphorically examines the "roots of evil" ( Haneke's expression ) which bloomed as Nazism can be debated but I for one could not refrain from seeing it in the context of the looming future which has already happened, even though the dramatis personae are innocent of the knowledge we the audience posess, unless we regard the film as a play-out of the narrator/film director's memory.
This is a German village of 1914, and it might as well be 1814, since it is the world of horse driven carriages, oil lamps and manual agriculture. The era is re-constructed in exquisite monochrome. The fields, the streams, the barns, the rectangular grey stone houses with their gabled entrances, the weathered faces of the working class are all meticulously etched in a canvas of bewitching beauty. The world of the early twentieth century resembles the sixteenth more than the present resembles the world fifty years ago. The other Germany, of music and intellect and Goethe is very much here, along with the sordidness which is our universal karma as humans, and religion when it stretches to morbid extremes. It is as though the director is searching out in this world of noble music and harmonious seasons the roots of the evil which was to come about. The roots are slender indeed and need a good deal of searching.
Ah yes, the plot. It's a closed and rigid society, patriarchal and authoritarian, and a swarm of children wend around in the hushed isolation of their private world . There is the Baron, the first citizen of the dorf. The widowed lecherous doctor molests his own daughter, The doctor's assistant, midwife and mistress adores her mentally retarded son Karli. The pastor's love for his family has been transformed into sadism by rigid religosity, and he tyrannises his children, wreaking severe punishment for minor transgressions. The farmer struggles to feed his large family, as he and his children react to the loss of the mother and wife. The good natured teacher blends comfortably into this idyllic if somewhat demon-infested environment. The teacher's courtship of the shy and gentle milk maid like Eva, Gretchen like, forms a lighted center in this sombre drama.
There is a series of mysterious and unexplained occurrences: the doctor is the target of an engineered accident, the farmer's wife is killed when the floor of a mill gives way, children are tortured, a barn is set to fire, a field of cabbage is "beheaded", the farmer commits suicide. Who is responsible for the accidents or crimes? The teacher plays Sherlock Holmes and the movie starts with the narrators statement that all this may have had something to do with the events of subsequent years. However, that does not seem to be the point of this delicate jewel of a movie indigo in mood , reminiscent somewhat of the 1972 Cabaret.
One may ask what quality in the German society led to the rise of hitlerism? What are the "roots of evil" which Haneke talks about which herald later events? The answer must be "Nothing." The society depicted in the movie could equally well belong to any other part of the world. The roots of evil, as of goodness, are universal attributes of the human make-up, not distinguishable by race, gender or education.
One can best enjoy and admire the movie as an especially delicate description of a time and a place, with melodic strains to evoke a sense of the ominous. The then unwritten but now sinking towards oblivion, future, suspends over the film like a heavy, still and invisible cloud.
Roger Ebert's review