“The White Ribbon” (Das Weisse Band)
 
            “The White Ribbon” is release in the U.S. having already received a Golden Globe nomination for best Foreign Film.  It’s a tormented, tormenting kind of movie that will likely struggle to find an audience here, except among the most adventurous of moviegoers.
            “The White Ribbon” refers to the white ribbon that the local Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) would make his children wear, to remind them of their obligation to be pure and innocent.  This, coming from the man who apparently enjoyed an incestuous relationship with his 14-year-old daughter.  Well, so much for the possible positive influence of religion, or religious authority figures, either.  This is pre-World War I Germany, in a small farming village.  The film is in black and white, and so is the apparent morality, at least on the surface.  There are no co-habitations allowed here, only married couples with children, usually lots of them.  It’s really a vestigial feudal system.  All the land seems to be owned by the baron, and the villagers are just tenant farmers.  The film is narrated by the young schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who informs us at the beginning that he really must tell this story, though only some of it is known to be factual, and some of it is hearsay.  Immediately after the events of this story, the world changed:  World War I erupted, and then, of course, after the defeat, the economic disaster, a perfect void for the development of fascism, and then, of course, the rise of Adolph Hitler.  So, literally, life was never the same for the inhabitants of this little village.  But there’s some dark foreshadowing here, as if the mentality of the people contains the kernels of the Nazi possibility, even then.  To the extent that is intentional, this film is really the indictment not just of one village, but of an entire nation.
            The men all dress formally, and rule their homes like dictators.  The women dress like Puritan peasants:  unadorned housefraus, with no occupation save birthing and rearing children, and, of course, the unrelenting household chores.  The children are taught the importance of obedience, and respect for their elders.  Rebellion is immediately punished, with swift corporal retribution.  (The viewers are spared seeing an adult actually strike a child, but the cries from the next room are horrific enough.)
            Into this grim atmosphere of stolid detention we have only one breath of fresh air, a sweet affection blooming between the schoolteacher and a village girl.  The trouble is, he’s 31, and she’s only 17, and though we’d like to root for romance, there’s still something untoward here, about leering adults with designs on the naïve and innocent.  The town doctor, whose wife perished in childbirth, carries on a desultory affair with his nurse, the midwife, then belittles her to the point of humiliation, plummeting them both to the level of sadism/masochism.  Somehow evil is luring, too, in a series of tragic mishaps:  the doctor is injured falling off his horse, but later it’s discovered that someone intentionally set a trip wire across his path.  The baron’s son is kidnapped and tortured, and so is the midwife’s “special needs” child.  So right there we have the resentment toward the wealthy, and the prejudice toward the “defective,” which become cornerstones of Nazi propaganda.  The school teacher suspects something is terribly amiss in the very culture of the community, even residing in the repressed, rebellious children.  It’s really too awful to contemplate, so we don’t.  The Great War begins, the movie ends, and we’re left to wonder if there was---is?---something in the mentality of a whole people that could produce not only produce a monster like Adolph Hitler, but sweep him into power on a giddy platform of economic resurgence, military might, and nationalistic pride.  Is Director Michael Haneke trying to tell us something?  Probably.  Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.  (Matthew 11:15)
 
Dr Ronald P Salfen, Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas