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The haunting final shot of The White Ribbon — a children’s choir singing in the balcony of a small church while the adult parishioners file in below — was among the first that occurred to the film’s writer-director, Michael Haneke. “I had the idea that these kids who are singing admire the ideals of their parents, but they take these ideals as absolutes and make them into a kind of ideology, which is very dangerous for other people,” he told me last summer. Haneke had stopped in L.A. on his way to the Telluride Film Festival, where The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, was receiving its North American premiere. “People who believe they own the truth become dangerous,” he added. “One of my first ideas for a title was The Right Hand of God, but it was too pedantic.”
Dogmatic ideologies — religious, political and social — are central to Haneke’s latest film, which unfolds in a rural German village during the year preceding the start of World War I. From its startling opening image of a horse tumbling over a trip wire and violently dislodging its rider, The White Ribbon traces a series of increasingly sinister “accidents” that befall the villagers, with no obvious culprit in sight. The young son of a wealthy baron is caned and hung upside down in a sawmill. Another boy, the mentally disabled son of a midwife, is nearly blinded; an anonymous note strung around his neck states that the children are being punished for the sins of their parents. Only, as The White Ribbon proceeds, the local schoolteacher (who also narrates the story as an old man looking back on the past) suspects with increasing conviction that it is the village’s stoic, strictly disciplined children who are actually doling out the punishment.
For those familiar with Haneke — whose best-known previous film, Caché (2005), focused on a bourgeois Paris book critic besieged by mysterious, voyeuristic videotapes sent from an unknown assailant — it will come as little surprise that The White Ribbon offers no tidy solution to its own sociological whodunnit. As usual in Haneke’s work, guilt or innocence is a collective rather than individual trait. The director, who began writing the movie’s screenplay more than a decade ago (initially as a TV miniseries), says he was intrigued by the way that “the appearance of German fascism and the appearance of Italian fascism were very different” — a difference the German-born, Austrian-raised Haneke chalks up to Germany’s unforgiving Protestant (as opposed to Catholic) roots. So he immersed himself in period research, with a particular emphasis on educational philosophies and techniques. The titular ribbon, which is tied around the arms of disobedient children as a reminder of the purity they strive for, was one such discovery. “It’s an enormous humiliation, because everybody knows what it means,” Haneke says. “On the other hand, this white ribbon makes the ones who wear it the heads of this children’s group.” Watching The White Ribbon, it isn’t difficult to imagine another type of empowering armband many German children who suffered the humiliations of World War I would come to wear a mere two decades later.
Haneke also took inspiration from Jonathan Littell’s controversial 2006 novel, The Kindly Ones, a fictional autobiography of an SS officer, which the filmmaker calls the best book about fascism he has ever read. “It’s an amazing book,” he says. “It’s very hard to read. It’s so cruel, it’s terrible. It’s an SS officer, very intelligent, who is responsible in the book for all these massacres, which are described in great detail. But you can understand him, because he says, ‘I have to suffer to do all these things for my ideology. It’s terrible what I’m doing, and I’m suffering so much, but I have to do this for my principles.’ That is very Protestant, very German. Of course, there are a lot of people who like to torture other people — that’s a different thing. But if you’ve read things like Eichmann saying, ‘I was an employee, and order is order,’ you see that where there is an ideology, and you are following rigorously this ideology, you have a good conscience.”
When I ask Haneke if he could imagine committing such atrocities, he quotes Goethe: “‘There is no crime of which I do not deem myself capable.’ It’s very easy to say, now, for my generation and the generation of my children, ‘How did it happen, the Nazi time?’ It’s easy to say it if you are not in the situation. Maybe I would have killed someone just to save my own skin. It’s easy to say you wouldn’t, until you are in the situation.”
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