The White Ribbon
Once I watched Casablanca on television two times in a month. One more time, and I think I would have started believing the film was sending me messages. Since I know definitively that channel thirteen, the local PBS channel here in New York, is hopelessly Establishment Liberal from the News Hour to the financial advisers trotted out during the fundraising drives, I will not argue that this was a ploy by evangelical right was trying to provoke me into premature militant socialism. I am just disclosing my predisposition, widely shared, to seek political messages via cinema.
Often I go awry. I left a movie theatre, where I saw Lina Wertmüller’s Love and Anarchy, then in its first run, declaring it was about everything worth living and dying for, and completely ignoring its underlying playful critique of revolutionary romanticism. Actually, I may have been getting the wrong message—chuck it all resistance struggle—from Casablanca. After all, the Resistance—like the American Revolution—had better be a one-off, or else.
At points of threatened upheaval, malcontents like myself start scaring ourselves with our own self-importance. We are especially likely to be the choir targeted for the sermon. (A comrade once-removed became exercised over the need for safe houses after seeing Casablanca.)
Forgive the deja vu, but after leaving the screening room after seeing Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, I felt I had been there before—many times. Yes, there was nostalgia for the sheer, novel joy of austere, black-and-white, non-musical movies as experienced by undergraduates of my generation. Today, the film would not be considered a “date” movie, but these were the movies my crowd went out to. Ingmar Bergman was new to us, and college students flocked to retro picture houses. This was a genre that is the mirror opposite of romantic comedy—not tragedy really, just “grim.”
Haneke is on record as saying the film, which tracks a bunch of bad seed kids whose sadism and off-kilter vengeance undermine the equanimity of a pre-World War I German village, was intended as a critique of absolutist pedagogy. Interesting, as one of the two sympathetic characters is the narrator/schoolmaster. He tells the story as an old man (Ernst Jacobi), and is played by Christian Friedel in his role as the young, naïve schoolmaster and choirmaster. The nanny to the local baron’s child, love interest and future bride of the narrator, is the other sympathetic character. Leonie Benesch is endearing as the shy, repressed young woman responding to and fending off her equally shy suitor.
The plot aims at more targets than pedagogy. Incest, animal abuse, corporal punishment, elitism, an abusive sexual relationship, and harsh police interrogation all take a turn in the spotlight. Justice is served, sort of; the kids are found out, sort of. The schoolmaster leaves for combat and leaves the village.
Several times, I felt that people of a bygone age were being examined harshly under modern hindsight and judged with contemporary sensibilities, almost as inhumanly as the characters were treating each other. The “white ribbon,” worn as a reminder of purity, seemed almost more quaint than repressive. And as if we were intent on proving we were no slouches in the sadism department, some in the viewing room – a few men - cheered the verbal abuse between the Doctor and the Midwife, his lover and assistant, as if they were watching a boxing match. Scary.
The complicity of wives and institutions like school and the church in patriarchy is in the foreground, whereas the war fever prior to World War I is only a distant drumbeat. I am all for confronting violence in the home; after all, the personal is political. However, I do think the challenge of our contemporary anti-fascist efforts must be bringing the struggle out of the parlor and bedroom, where they are single issues in silos, and into the streets, where the call is for wide-reaching, broad-based systemic change.