movie night: the white ribbon
This is something I wrote about a German film I saw this weekend: The White Ribbon. I felt thoughtful and inspired after seeing it so I put some thoughts into words. If you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend it.
The White Ribbon takes its title from a key symbol in the film. A pastor and his wife discipline their children by tying a white satin ribbon around their arms and making them wear it for a period of time as a reminder of innocence, and purity when they have done wrong.
The story is set in an unspecified, intentionally generic, small town in Germany right before the start of WWI. It tells the story of mysterious incidents of people in the town being hurt or victimized in perverse ways, and shows how several prominent figures in the town—the baron, the pastor, and the doctor—react as each new and strange violation occurs. The plot begins when the doctor himself is injured after his horse trips on an invisible wire tied between two trees as he is nearing his home. The wire could only have been placed there as a deliberate snare, but none can guess who might have done this deed. This is the beginning of a series of bizarre and malicious incidents in the town.
As the story unfolds there are multiple scenes showing the most prominent townsmen and how they behave in the context of their private lives. What is clear is that each of them, though it falls to them to help bring the town safely through this crisis, is incapable of doing so, and each is enacting one or more kinds of abuse in the private sphere—whether physical, sexual, verbal, or spiritual—upon those with less power or those who hold no power at all, namely children.
The movie is grim but bearable in part because it is narrated by a sane voice, that of the town’s school teacher, a clear-faced young man who is merely a neutral observer of these bizarre events and seems to be set apart from the web of toxic dysfunction that taints the town’s social nexus. He is appropriately attracted to a young woman Eva who is similarly set apart. He repeatedly describes the qualities in her which he finds most attractive: shyness, frankness.
It could be said that the entire movie—with the exception of the courtship between the schoolteacher and Eva—is a series of abuse scenes. The pastor is verbally abusive and shaming whenever he lectures his children, which is apparently all of the time. He is spiritually abusive when he sets himself up as a representative of a disapproving God such as when, for example, while distributing the very body and blood of Christ at church, he hesitates cruelly before holding the chalice to his daughter’s lips. That the children have absorbed a confused and perverse notion of God from their father is evident when one son walks the precipitous rail of a bridge claiming that he is giving God a chance to kill him.
The doctor, no pretender to virtue, holds a different kind of respect within the town, and yet is in an illicit and abusive relationship with the woman who cares for his son. In one scene he verbally abuses her mercilessly. Before the viewer can feel sorry for her, she is responding with an equally venomous diatribe. Beyond this are the scenes of sexual and physical abuse which are starkly presented and thus unmistakable.
It becomes clear in the course of the film that the children, as victims of abuse, are already taking on the characteristics of their abusers. When the three boys are sitting by the lake one turns upon the other without any provocation and throws him into the water. Later, it is clear that he has stolen the boy’s whistle, and uses it to taunt his father, who is ashamed and enraged that his son has stolen the whistle, for it belongs to the son of his employer, the formidable baron, whom the farmer already deeply resents. He transfers his resentment and rage against his employer by taking a whip to his defiant son.
All of these scenes seem to center upon the presence of shame and how it functions within all the tiers of power within a repressive society. Shame creates a downward, self-perpetuating spiral of rage and retaliation. The town is committed to an external appearance of respectability, or, as the pastor would like to think, “goodness,” and “innocence,” as symbolized by the white ribbon. Their calendar year is punctuated by wholesome rituals, their homes are orderly, civilized, and well-furnished. Their children are quiet and submissive. But the adults of the town have an inner life which does not coincide with this image of respectability. And as long as the rigidity of the status quo is upheld, there is no hope of such secrets, whether real or perceived, being tolerated openly. They need relief from the shame and self-disgust they carry (as evidenced by the doctor who confesses that he is disgusted with himself and the way he lives with the midwife). They find this relief impulsively in the act of shaming someone less powerful, particularly children. Although everyone is made to carry this burden of shame, the children are given the heaviest allotment of anyone, because they lack the power of an adult to find relief through any authentic or official channel.
So although the mystery is never solved conclusively in the end, it seems most likely that the criminals are precisely those whom the narrator suspects: the children. It is the children who bear the heaviest burden of shame while holding the least amount of power and the fewest options for coping with the shame they bear. They must find their relief through subversive channels, in nonsensical acts, such as when one of the young girls murders her father’s bird with a pair of scissors and leaves it for him to find on his desk. And although they are angry, they do what is typical of abused children. That is, they will not accuse their parents of being wrong or unsafe. In fact, although shaming goes on within the family unit freely, when an outsider is introduced, the family shifts into a mode of airtight loyalty to its members. When confronted, the children will not betray their parents or one another but will protect them. They are victims identifying with their abusers. This is shown by the girl who in one instance makes up a story about having her ears pierced in order to cover her father’s incest. Similarly, the pastor, when he is visited by the schoolteacher and confronted with the possibility that his children might be the ones wreaking havoc in the town, defends their innocence with ferocity—the same innocence that, behind closed doors, he systematically denies. It is now the schoolteacher’s turn to receive the full force of the pastor’s expert shaming.
One feels just how strong the pull of denial and loyalty is upon the children when a lone girl feels the compulsion to confess what she knows, but couches it—whether consciously or unconsciously—in the language of a dream instead of reality. Her distress and confusion are obvious and it seems that the claims of denial and family loyalty are so strong upon her that the nearest she can come to a straightforward confession can only be filtered weakly through a miasma of self-deception. One feels the hopelessness of her attempt to assert what she knows toward the goal of making things right. The policeman despises her person and her words and so they are stillborn and utterly powerless to affect any change in the situation.
Given the incestuous nature of parent-child relationships in the town, it is highly appropriate that when the next victim, a boy with downs syndrome, is found in the woods, and there is a message attached: the scripture verse warning that the sins of the father are visited upon the next generation. The children of this repressive town are doomed to carry their parents’ shame into their adulthood and—unless something intervenes—inflict it upon a new set of victims, beginning with a creature as small as a bird.
The schoolteacher and Eva, his sweetheart, stand in high relief against the backdrop of this sick culture. Eva in particular is described very definitely as “shy,” and “frank,” qualities that could be considered precise opposites to shame and duplicity. Her qualities lead to intimacy, connection, and gentleness with another human being in contrast to the disintegration, hate, and rage which infect the other relationships. When Eva is fired from her job in the baron’s home without any apparent reason, it seems likely that her presence in the home is an allergen because she is too innocent and thus unable to abide by the perverse rules which play out under the roof of a sick, shame-based family. One who refuses to be a carrier of shame and join in the unspoken pact must remain an outsider, a threat to the sick family loyalty, and will be expelled. And Eva’s own family may be no better, it seems, because when she is fired she says that they will not believe in her innocence but will assume that she has done something secretly wrong to get herself fired. One senses that they will defer their reading of the situation to the decision of the baron, rather than trusting the daughter they know, simply because the baron is more powerful. The townspeople are caught up in a cycle of blame, shame, guilt, resentment, secrets, status, and assumptions both within their enclosed families and within their broader societal relations.
Finally, the most obvious fact of the film is its historical context of pre-WWI Germany. The setting of the story would connect the generation of children in the film’s story neatly to the Nazi Germany of a little over a decade later. The children of the town are slated to fill the shoes of Nazis. In light of this, a most obvious reading of the film is that it merely presents a possible explanation for the psychological origins of Nazi cruelty. However, the fact that the town is so eerily featureless allows for the possibility of it being both anywhere and nowhere. This allows the story to transcend a particular historical context and moves the viewer away from a facile, worn-out characterization of the Nazi as so utterly despicable that he can be dismissed as sharing any connection with humanity. The town and its repressive culture may be extreme or even hyperbolic, but it is most definitely recognizable as human in its brokenness, and presents a kind of social brokenness that is easily duplicable whenever and wherever a religiously or governmentally suppressive society might take root. The children of the town are recognizable only as children: pitifully vulnerable, tender-hearted, easily deceived, frightened, loyal, angry, primeval, easily wounded, shedding tears, and placing absolute trust in their adult caretakers.