Mapping Contemporary Cinema

White Ribbon (Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte), 2009

Production Companies: X-Filme Creative Pool, Wega Film, Les Films du Losange, Lucky Red
Distribution: Sony Pictures Entertainment, et al
Director: Michael Haneke
Producers: Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Margaret Menegoz, Andrea Occhipinti
Executive Producers: Michael Katz
Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Cinematography: Christian Berger
Editor: Monika Willi
Cast: Christian Friedel (The School Teacher), Eva (Leonie Benesh), Ulrich Tukur (The Baron), Ursini Lardi (The Baroness)
Running Time: 144 mins
Classification: Rated R for some disturbing content involving violence and sexuality
Box-office Gross: domestic $2.2m / worldwide $19.3m Continue reading

 
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Plot A baronial estate in Germany, mid-1913. In voiceover narration the local schoolmaster, many years later, describes the events that unfold as his recollections, presenting them as a possible or partial explanation for what happened in Germany in the decades that followed. Seeds of discord are first sown in the village when the doctor’s horse is deliberately tripped up and a woman dies in what looks like a workplace accident. The dead woman’s son takes revenge, attacking the baron’s cabbage crop; other sinister incidents – including an act of arson and the suicide of a widower – go unexplained. The schoolmaster’s courtship if Eva, a nanny on the estate, is disrupted when the baron fires her, outraged at a physical attack on his son. The schoolmaster begins to suspect the pastor’s offspring are behind some of the disturbances after a note is left with a victim saying that the attacks on children are punishment for the suns of their abusive parents. Shortly after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the schoolmaster reveals his findings to the pastor, but is strongly rebuked. He recalls the day war broke out, then briefly mentions later events in his life – marriage to Eva, conscription, taking on his father’s business – and the fact that he never saw any of the villagers again. The mysteries remain unsolved.

Film note The White Ribbon  tells the story of a young teacher working in a small German village just before World War I. Throughout the film a series of mysterious violent crimes take place, and ultimately it becomes clear that the local children are the perpetrators. While the setting of the film is Germany, the film’s position in the discourse of national cinemas has been muddled by the fact that director Michael Haneke is Austrian.  This lack of straightforwardness is not uncommon in nationality-based film analyses, because the concept of national cinemas itself is vague. As Andrew Higson writes: “there is not a single universally accepted discourse of national cinema” (52). Higson boils the various appropriations of the national cinema idea in film theory down to four key approaches: the economic approach, the text-based approach, the consumption-based approach, and the criticism-led approach (52-53). Here, I will discuss German nationality as it exists within The White Ribbon. This film note does not seek to identify what films are popular with German audiences or seen as belonging to German culture by critics, but to identify German aesthetics, ideologies and anxieties as they exist within a specific piece of work. As such, my analysis will be grounded firmly in the first two approaches identified by Higson, with a heavy focus on text-based analysis and placing the text in a broader cultural and political German context.

Nationality on and off the screen From a nationality-based perspective, the economic circumstances of The White Ribbon’s production are complicated. Understanding national cinema in economic terms entails “establishing a conceptual correspondence between the terms ‘national cinema’ and ‘the domestic film industry’” (Higson 52). In other words, this approach calls for identifying who made the film, where it was made, and who owned the industrial infrastructure used during production. The White Ribbon was produced by a host of different production companies from different countries. X-Filme Creative Pool from Germany, Wega Film from Austria, Les Films du Losange from France and Lucky Red from Italy are listed as the main producers, though a series of other companies were also involved.

With the participation of all these countries, and its Austrian director and its German setting and crew, The White Ribbon can perhaps be seen as a form of pan-European production that belongs to the longstanding tradition of European arthouse cinema. Strengthening the case for this pan-European understanding is the fact that Haneke himself in an interview talked about how the film connects with issues of contemporary fascism that exist “in France, Austria, Germany, everywhere you look, in how people treat each other” (qtd in Anon). However, in a press conference at Cannes, Haneke voiced a complaint that “because it is a German film” it might be too easy for non-Germans to avoid feeling implicated by its message (qtd in Inoz). Here the director clearly states that he understands the film as being essentially German, though carrying a transnational message. That the filmmaker sees the film as German is underpinned by the fact that its original full title is Das weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, which translates to “The White Ribbon – A German children’s story”.

Additionally, the fact that the film was shot in Germany means that even though it was funded by various institutions from different countries, the majority of the industrial apparatus mobilised to produce it is German. The sets used, the crew hired, and the actors cast are essential to an understanding of what domestic film industry the film might belong to. In the case of The White Ribbon, pretty much all of these were German. The White Ribbon draws on the talent and former experience of various German professionals who would not have been able to sustain themselves as film workers if not for the domestic German film industry, and the production of The White Ribbon was essentially “another job”, or in some cases the first job, for many German technicians and actors. Additionally, while the film’s budget might have been raised internationally, it was spent in Germany, strengthening local companies that work in cinema or fields related to it, such as camera hire or make-up. In this way, The White Ribbon as an economic entity can be seen as belonging predominantly to the domestic German film industry. Thus, the economics of the film might point towards an understanding of the film as belonging more to Germany than other countries, although other countries also were involved in its production.

An auteur-led approach to this film might disrupt this understanding to a degree. On the one hand it might be argued that a foreign director can never gain the proper intrinsic understanding of a culture that allows them to create a work of art that fully captures this culture. An argument like this might exaggerate the cultural differences between Germany and Austria, especially when it comes to a film that works with the Heimat-genre to tell a part of the story of the rise of fascism under Hitler. Hitler was, after all, an Austrian, and many Heimat films have been set in the Alps. As John Orr noted in his essay on The White Ribbon, “For Haneke, the Austrian born in Munich, this then may be something of a return to origins, an ironic revisiting of Heimat” (Orr 263). As I have established, Haneke himself specifically understands this film as being German. The White Ribbon is also not the only case where a film that has been made by a director from one country can be understood as belonging to another nation. Many British filmmakers have made films that are generally understood as American instead of British, such as the works of Alfred Hitchcock.

Ultimately, though, the level of understanding of The White Ribbon’s nationality that is to be gained from its production circumstances is limited. To go beyond the argument that its production is mainly, though not exclusively, German, it is necessary to look at the filmic text of The White Ribbon itself. Higson writes that the key questions in this area of national cinema analysis are “What are these films about? Do they share a common style or world view? What sort of projections of the national character do they offer?” (53). The subject-matter of The White Ribbon is decidedly German. The film is about Germans living in a German village during a significant part of German history, and the film has ties to the distinctly German Heimat film tradition. The German subheading of the film, “Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte”, emphasises the importance of the children portrayed in the film. These children belong to the generation that was to grow up to become the core of the National Socialist movement. As such, the specific setting chosen for The White Ribbon is an important part of German culture, history and self-understanding, which can be summarised as German nationhood.

As “a revisionist Heimat film” (Orr 260), The White Ribbon enters into a longstanding genre tradition that is specifically German. The way in which The White Ribbon concerns itself with German nationhood borrows from Heimat conventions. As Celia Applegate describes, Heimat has long functioned to map wider social changes, occupying a place “at the center of a German moral – and by extension political – discourse about place, belonging and identity”, especially in relation to modernity (6). The White Ribbon mobilises a Heimat setting in order to explore a specific aspect of the formation of German fascism and that ideology’s relationship with pre-modern Germany as represented by the Baron and the Protestant Church. In operating on the historical turning point between pre-modernity and modernity, The White Ribbon seems to fit neatly within the Heimat genre.

However, this is not a conventional Heimat film. The Heimat genre is first of all marked by its strong connection with the Heimat as a place, i.e. its setting. Consequently, it is the formal, cinematic presentation of this place that takes centre stage. “Heimatfilms do not merely tell Heimat stories; more importantly, they show Heimat images” (Von Moltke 83). Aesthetics are an essential part of the genre, yet The White Ribbon clearly challenges the conventional visual representation of the countryside that most Heimat films have utilised. In his essay on the film, John Orr writes that “in setting, the Austrian forsakes the Alpine original of the Heimat genre and the Bavarian setting of most revisionist remakes of the 1970s […] in favour of the flat plains of rural Northern Germany” (260). He adds that Haneke “revisits history atmospherically in luminous monochrome and uses distancing effects to undermine the realism of motive and event” (260). This is in stark contrast to traditional Heimat films such as The Heath Is Green (1951), which had a spectacular widescreen rendition of German landscapes and marketed itself as “the first German color film” (Von Moltke 85).

The White Ribbon is not the first film to have challenged the conventional aesthetic approach that has been taken towards the countryside by Heimat films. In Heart of Glass (1976), director Werner Herzog used a distinct, sublime aesthetic in order to construct a projection of Germany and its people that is different from the common Heimat approach. However, German landscapes are heavily mythologised, as Herzog stylises them through long takes such as a time-lapse shot of fog rolling through a valley. Heart of Glass’ sublime aesthetic evokes imagery similar to that of the romanticist period of German art history, and maintains religious overtones throughout. The White Ribbon’s stylisation of the German countryside differs from this in that it does not evoke the same set of romanticist images, but challenges a traditional romantic view of the “idyllic” countryside. Haneke uses a low-key suspense-driven aesthetic and deliberate withholds information in what is essentially a crime-based narrative in order to destabilise that idyll. The importance of religion, however, is shared between the two films.

Protestant anxieties Protestantism is integral to The White Ribbon. In order to explain its influence I will draw on an article written by Hilary Stanworth that discusses the connection between Protestantism and the way in which followers of that faith orientate themselves towards their surrounding landscapes. In the article, Stanworth draws upon the ideas of American theorist Richard Sennett (1990; 1993), but proceeds to challenge them. She summarises Sennett’s ideas as follows: “[He] claims that Protestant-induced anxieties encourage moves to create bland, neutralised environments in which temptation and contact with distractingly different others can be minimised” (Stanworth 295). However, she criticises Sennett’s analysis as too American-centric, and uses Sweden as an example of a Protestant country whose very similar religious background creates a different outlook on both human-made and natural environments. In her conclusion, which she titles “Accounting for Difference”, Stanworth demonstrates how a similar idea, i.e. Protestantism, can manifest itself in different ways in different parts of the world. As she writes, “it is not simply free-floating “ideas”—religiously-derived or otherwise—that affect how people orientate to their external environment, but also their forms of social organisation, whose sources may be partly independent of the ideas in question” (318). Essential to understanding Protestant anxieties is the fact that it “proposes a direct relation between the isolated individual and God, without the comfort of priestly mediators” (Stanworth 298). This places an immense existential pressure on the individual, who is solely responsible for their own salvation. Coupled with the belief that living a virtuous life is necessary to avoid eternal damnation, Protestants can become obsessed with avoiding sin and “controlling the inner self”, which in turn leads to “attempts to neutralise the external world and make it not too distracting” (Stanworth 297). Ultimately, the existential fears that accompany Protestantism lead to what Stanworth calls “the desire to be good and be seen to be good and to control” (299). Protestants seek to produce external signs of virtue in order to demonstrate their goodness, and “anxiety can generate an imperative to control—both the inner self and the external world” (Stanworth 300).

While these core ideas remain the same across Protestant countries, there are many differences in the ways they manifest themselves both within different cultures and within different branches of Protestantism. Lutheranism, Calvinism and Anglicanism all have notable theological differences, but still co-exist in different countries, particularly the US. The presence of Lutheran Protestants in the US and Calvinist Protestants in Germany complicate the cultural differences between Protestant manifestations worldwide. However, after several centuries of dominant Lutheranism in Germany and Scandinavia, it is of course Lutheranism that has most influenced those cultures. In The White Ribbon, the anxieties of this German Lutheranism manifest themselves in several ways. Its monochromatic image, restrained use of sound and dim lighting create a bland, minimalistic aesthetic that aligns with the Protestant moves to create neutralised environments as identified by Sennett. It is also reminiscent of the bland interiors of many Protestant churches, which can be contrasted with the elaborate designs of Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals.

The filmic form of The White Ribbon makes the film’s setting even blander, neutralised and ultimately Protestant than it originally was. By removing colour from the German landscapes and interiors, and by consistently using a calm camera that is either static or moving slowly and measuredly, The White Ribbon creates an aesthetic that is informed by the Protestant anxieties of the film’s main characters. Perhaps curiously, this aesthetic is wildly different from the lavish, colourful style used in Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982), although that film also concerns itself with the treatment of children under dogmatic Protestantism.  However, the style of Fanny and Alexander is not Protestant, but at odds with the aesthetics of Swedish Lutheranism. The lavish style is there used to portray the hypocrisy of a parental generation that preaches dogmatism and practices sin.

The aesthetics of The White Ribbon, however, express that the film’s characters have taken Protestant anxieties to heart. Although they are perhaps living in a colourful nature that is heavily romanticised in the Heimat tradition, they ultimately still live a life that hinges on maintaining self-discipline in the face of temptation. As Stanworth writes about nature, “a non-neutralised world can also be valued as an opportunity to test and exhibit internal discipline” (300). At one point in the film, the teacher wants to take Eva picnicking, but she asks him not to because it makes her uncomfortable. After reassuring her that he had “no improper intentions”, he turns their cart around. The Heimat location might seem romantic on the surface, but its romance is not something its Protestant inhabitants allow themselves to enjoy.

These Protestant anxieties are rooted in a fear of death, and a wish for an eternal life in Paradise. In the film Haneke dedicates an entire scene to one child, Rudolf, experiencing his first understanding of mortality and feeling understandably anxious in the face of it. The most overtly Protestant character in the film, however, is the pastor. He is driven entirely by an obsession with virtue. While he seems to feel in control of his own inner self and sure of his own personal salvation, he is terrified that his children might grow up to be sinners and consequently end up facing eternal damnation. This is demonstrated in his speech to his son on the dangers of masturbation, and the repeated punishments he inflicts upon his children in response to their perceived sins. The film makes clear that the children themselves have taken the pastor’s anxieties to heart, perhaps most pointedly so in the scene where Martin balances on a bridge as a challenge to God to take his life. As he later explains to the teacher, “God didn’t kill me, therefore he must be pleased with me.”

These children have been raised to become obsessed with virtue themselves, and it is this mindset that leads them to exert judgment over other people and their children. No wholesome information is provided by the film that clearly outlines the background for each crime and the motivation behind them, but one can assume that the doctor is punished for his incestuous relationship with his own daughter. The baron’s family, specifically his son, are victims of multiple attacks throughout the film, the most significant of which happens early on after the death of a woman working at the mill. Presumably the children have placed the blame on the baron in the same way the young farmer who destroyed the cabbage field did. Later on, when one of the girls tells the teacher that she has seen in a dream that the midwife’s child is going to be tortured (which later occurs) she adds, “but he hasn’t done anything.” From this statement it is logical to conclude that she sees some of the preceding tortures as ethically justified punishments for sins committed, but that she disagrees with the other children when it comes to this specific case.

The rise of Nazism Although never explicitly expressed by the film itself, it is implicit in its story that these children belong to the generation that grew up to form the Nazi movement in Germany. Haneke stated of the film that it does not explain the rise of Nazism, but displays “one of the sources of radical thinking”, adding that “these children take themselves for God’s right hand because they know the difference between good and evil and they have the right to judge others. This is always the beginning of terrorism” (qtd in Anon). Haneke clearly states that he sees this specific case of fascist terrorism as partly originating in the children’s strict Protestant upbringing, although in the same interview he asserts that Protestantism is not the only mindset from which such ideas can arise, and that Protestantism is not inherently fascist. The terrorist acts of violence committed by the children in The White Ribbon are thus one of many different ways in which Protestant anxieties can manifest themselves.

The link proposed by the film between the countryside, Protestantism, and fascism has some founding in actual demographic data on the rise of Nazism in Germany. In his scientific investigation of the demographics of Nazi support in Germany, Ronald Rogowski uses the backgrounds of the Gauleiter, regional Nazi leaders, as his most important source of demographic data. In short, this is because they are more representative of the Nazi movement as a whole than the central Nazi party leaders, and the data is more reliable and complete than any member registry or similar dataset (Rogowski 402). Rogowski found that amongst the most committed members of the party who joined before it gained traction in the early 1930s, there was a significant tendency towards having had a Protestant “or at least secularized” background, in particular those of “peasants, artisans, shopkeepers, and white-collar workers” (399). He also found that most of the party’s early joiners had experienced immense upwards social mobility in their lives, often having risen beyond the lower-class background of their parents (425), and noted that the internal structure of the NSDAP was “remarkably egalitarian”, with anti-elitism likely being an important cause for support from the upwards socially mobile who had some disdain for established elites (427).

Most of these demographic elements are recognisable in The White Ribbon. The film’s children are not only Protestant, but belong to the type of lower- and middle-class groups that were attracted to Nazism. In addition to the aforementioned labour groups, Nazism was also popular with un- and underemployed academics (Rogowski 408) and with students (Rogowski 423). While it is near-impossible to speculate on the possible career paths of the individual children in the film, they do have the educational foundation in place to achieve the form of upward mobility Rogowski outlines. Additionally, their disdain for the old elite is made clear in the nature of the punishments they undertake: the majority of their attacks are, after all, directed towards the baron and the doctor, who, particularly in the first case, represent established elites within local society. What The White Ribbon shows, then, is how the seeds of fascism and terrorism can be unintentionally planted in a host of different children raised in idyllic countryside surroundings, manifesting years later in what will then have become a demographically disparate groups, as the children come from different families and will have different career paths. Rogowski demonstrates in his article that economic circumstances such as poverty or a lack of upwards social mobility are insufficient in explaining someone’s affinity for Nazism, as both poor and wealthy joined the movement. The support for Nazism was so broad that demographics alone cannot sufficiently explain it. The White Ribbon, which mobilises both religiosity and cultural Heimat imagery in order to discuss the origins of fascism, underpins this understanding of materialist analysis as insufficient.

With its complicated and nuanced discussions of Heimat, Protestantism and Nazism all interwoven into an allegorical narrative told with an austere aesthetic (all of which are potent and important elements of German history, culture and nationhood), it is clear that The White Ribbon is German through and through. The film is a revisionist take on an almost exclusively German film genre; discusses a faith that originated in Germany, namely Lutheranism; and tries to explain parts of the reasons for the most traumatic event of recent German history, namely National Socialism. Taking all of this into account, The White Ribbon has a natural place in any discussion of filmic representations of German nationhood, even if its production circumstances are not unequivocally German.

References

Anon, “The White Ribbon” [Mongrel Media Press Kit]. Mongrel Media. N.d. Web. 01 Aug 2016.

Applegate, Celia. A Nation of Provincials: The German Idea of Heimat. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1990. Print.

Higson, Andrew. “The Concept of National Cinema.” In Ed. Alan Williams. Film and Nationalism. London: Rutgers University Press, 2002. pp 52-67. Print.

Inoz, Blondinka. “The White Ribbon (2009) Michael Haneke Interview at Cannes.” Youtube. 28 Dec 2014. Web. 01 Aug 2016.

Orr, John. “The White Ribbon in Michael Haneke’s Cinema.” In Eds. Ben McCann and David Sorfa. The Cinema of Michael Haneke. New York: Wallflower Press, 2011. pp 259–264. Print.

Rogowski, Ronald. “The Gauleiter and the Social Origins of Fascism.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 19.4 (1977): 399–430. Print.

Sennett, Richard. Conscience of the Eye. London: Faber and Faber, 1993. Print.

Sennett, Richard. “American Cities: The Grid-plan and the Protestant Ethic.” International Social Science Journal. 42.3 (1990): 269–285. Print.

Stanworth, Hilary. “Protestantism, Anxiety and Orientations to the Environment: Sweden as a Test Case for the Ideas of Richard Sennett” World Views: Environment, Culture, Religion, 10.3 (2006): 295–325. Print.

Von Moltke, Johannes. No Place Like Home: Locations of Heimat in German Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Written by Johannes Fauske Aschim (2016); edited by Nick Jones (2016), Queen Mary, University of London

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Copyright © 2016 Johannes Fauske Aschim/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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