Is Evil Our Inheritance?

Michael Haneke’s haunting film Das Weiße Band won this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes

A scene from Haneke’s film, which takes place on the eve of WWII | Photo courtesy of X-Filme Creative Pool

Michael Haneke’s quietly powerful and profoundly haunting pastoral Das Weiße Band (The White Ribbon) was this year’s winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes and has further endorsed his status as a grand European auteur, a director with a unique signature and highly distinctive style.

Many critics have cited Das Weiße Band as Haneke’s masterpiece, a provocative and elegant film that is his most mature and accomplished work to date. Significantly, Das Weiße Band is subtitled Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte (A German Children’s Story) and is in keeping with this grim genre.

It is the brooding atmospheric mystery beautifully shot in shades of black and white that creates the effect of an antique postcard come to life. It is indeed hard to find fault with a film of this calibre, where the narrative is compelling, cinematography is captivating and performances are impeccable.

The story is set in a secluded village in northern Germany on the eve of the First World War and concerns many characters in the community: The children of the choir, their families, their school teacher and the baron, the steward, the pastor, the doctor, the midwife and the tenant farmers.

It quickly becomes apparent that the village is not a pastoral idyll and that many tensions are beginning to surface. The isolated community is shaken by a series of spiteful and anonymous acts and inexplicable events: a trip wire causes the doctor to fall from his horse; a woman dies in what may have been a work accident, a farmer hangs himself, the baron’s entire summer crop of cauliflower is willfully destroyed and his young son is strung up and whipped, someone opens the window to let in the winter cold where the newborn baby of the steward sleeps, the manor barn is burnt down in the middle of the night, and a boy with Down’s syndrome is horribly abused.

Despite the disturbing implication of these events, they are lightly woven amongst the more usual dramas of everyday life – a marriage proposal, a harvest festival, an affair – seeming to hint that a level of repression, fear, denial and malaise in the village has also become the norm. The audience is encouraged to suspect the complicity of local children and it seems as if some kind of poison is slowly destroying the soul of the community.

Although we are given clues to the culprits, a solution always remains tantalisingly out of reach and much more is suggested rather than shown explicitly. Haneke places this criminal behavior in a broader social and moral context where blame, guilt and responsibility are spread throughout the community. It becomes increasingly obvious that these incidents are symptoms of a mass dysfunction in which children and disenfranchised adults are in a state of rebellion against authority.

The story is narrated by the local schoolmaster after the events, and even he remains baffled as to what exactly happened. At first he is too distracted by his romantic pursuit of the baron’s governess to pay much attention to these mysteries. However, when Karli is found tied to a tree and viciously beaten, with a handwritten message on his person about divine punishment, the teacher begins to think that he can see a horrifying connection between at least some of these events – and looking back years later he speculates that “they could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country”.

There is little human joy or love to be found in Das Weiße Band; the film is substantially about repression, hypocrisy, guilt, abuse of power, the origins of evil and the way the sins of adults are visited upon the young. By setting the film in this specific time and place, Haneke seems to suggest that the rise of fascism came out of this age of suppression, authoritarianism, religious doubt, intolerance and fear. Although an analysis of the roots of Nazism can be read into the narrative, Haneke has maintained that this work is as much an investigation of terrorism as it is of fascism.

Is evil therefore in the genes or in society? Haneke does not force an answer to this and leaves much open-ended in the film. The dawn of fascism is subtly portrayed because no politics enter the film overtly at any point. Class wars and sexual politics do though in what is clearly a patriarchy and one where sexual transgression behind closed doors is rife. The pastor’s children must wear the white ribbon as a reminder of their sinful state and the need for purity but ultimately there is little innocence in this film.

Das Weiße Band is a tale of the past that strongly points to the future – Haneke implicates the audience in his critique every step of the way.

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