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Everything That Sleeps Reawakens One Day. – Michael Haneke

The White Ribbon (DAS WEISSE BAND ), 2009, a film by Michael Haneke –

The White Ribbon, the award-winning new film from Michael Haneke, is sub-titled A Children’s Story. The children of a small village in Northern Germany are at the heart of this film. Haneke contemplates the process of evil’s origination in the raising of these children, a process that requires the repression of all joy and openness and the nurturance of fear and loathing. The titular white ribbon is tied onto Klara and Martin, two young teens, by their father, the town Pastor, who explains that the ribbon serves to bind them to innocence and purity. Of course that is a lie, just as the quiescence and purity of the village is an illusion that conceals horrors. The cruelty shown the children is normative behavior in the village’s rigidly patriarchal, feudal environment. The placid town slumbers, its resentment and fear festering, as we know full well that its reawakening will be in the Third Reich: the village children are the generation that will form the backbone of Nazi Germany. From one languorous and bleak scene to the next, the psychopathology of fascism unfolds, with methodical precision. The breaks of sweetness, a romance between the town schoolteacher and the nanny of the town’s manor house, only serve to heighten the contrasting gloom and cruelty. Haneke drops into this setting several unsolved and seemingly random crimes and fatal accidents, from which a mysterious horror hangs in the air like a tasteless and odorless poison.

A group of village children march in step on what they claim is a kind-hearted mission to see Anna, a girl whose father (the town doctor) has been injured in a riding accident. On its face the spectacle of the girls walking in unison is a bit somber, but innocent enough–still there is an unsettlingly sadistic shading to their mission. Anna’s father had fallen victim to a deliberately strung wire that tripped his horse. Are the children really on a visit of good will, or are they returning to the scene of a crime? Later, the same children are seen being severely reprimanded at dinner for being out too late. Their father, the town’s pastor, announces he will beat them all on the very next day, a form of sadism which I only hope is rare these days (my Italian mother used to tell me with great disdain that only cold-blooded Germans allotted time between the sentencing and the execution of punishment, and boasted that Italians believed in beating their children only in the heat of anger!!) The horrific anticipation drives one of the young victims to a suicide attempt. Some time after the pastor canes his children, the child of the town patriarch is found half dead and half naked, having been served up an uncannily similar beating. More incidents follow, all of them seeming to make a certain sense, but blame is never fixed, and despite the lumpen attempts of an outside police force to solve the crimes, no single culprit ever emerges. The townspeople are frozen in silence.

In an extraordinary scene, the town’s schoolteacher, an innocent man who is an “outsider” from a neighboring village, and therefore out of reach of the psychic oppression that rules these folks, confides certain suspicions to the Pastor, bits of evidence that imply the Pastor’s own children may have something to do with the crimes. Of course, the Pastor becomes enraged and threatens the schoolteacher with ruin. But nothing ever happens. The final sealing over of the mystery occurs when the housekeeper of the doctor claims that she knows who is responsible for the crimes. She rides off on a bicycle to tell the police, and we never hear from her again.

This unwillingness to investigate, to purge, to accuse, to “bring to justice” represents a collusion of the oppressor and the oppressed–and here is the real mystery that Haneke presents to us: why this silence? The core thesis of The White Ribbon, and the reason for Haneke leaving unsolved the crimes of his allegorical village, is all about the human desire to remain sleeping, to resist the psychic rupture that truth threatens, to resist change even when the habits and practices that bind us produce illness and misery for ourselves, our loved ones and our children. The people of Haneke’s village will slumber on, through dreams, through nightmares, through self delusion (the Pastor really believes he loves his children). The political, economic and social repression so imbue the personal realm that individuals are immobilized in a sleep-like passivity, that is, until “the reawakening”, that age-old tragedy of Oedipus, finding the remains of crimes scattered about in so many open graves. The themes that Haneke opens up in The White Ribbon may apply pointedly to the process of fascism, but are deeply resonant wherever a culture of concealment and repression buries the hope of significant social or personal change in falsehoods, trivialities and distractions.

[Academy Award nominations for Best Foreign Language Film & Cinematography–Christian Berger]


  1. Valencia has (as usual) shared insights in affecting prose into some of the best recent cultural offerings. I would only offer a footnote to her perceptive analysis of ” The White Ribbon”. She emphasizes the human desire to remain sleeping, to resist change no matter the misery that passivity preserves. Haneke also alludes to the “why” we resist, and that is the corrupting power structures that work in any society to, often brutally, secure their needs over anything else. In the film we see the pastor rigidly controlling his submissive often terrified children to preserve the letter of religion(read, the Church) and their revered status in the community. Mysogeny and power over women are represented by the cruel doctor’s treatment and sexual abuse of his assistant and daughter. The serfdom is presided over by a wealthy Duke who cares little for the lives of the workers who keep his wealth intact, even as the wife of a poor tenant is killed in one of the Duke’s shoddy and unsafe barns.Resistors are promptly dealt with, as shown by the ostrasizing treatment accorded the son of the dead woman who tries to strike back in anger, (just as the daughter of the pastor kills her father’s parakeet out of suppressed rage somewhat challenging Valencia’s assertion that the town just sleepwalks through the events). If there was ever an allegory for our current times, this film is a striking reminder that religion cynically supports an all powerful corporatocracy, labor unions and worker’s rights are being crushed, woman and minorities continue to be oppressed, quality education is always a supreme struggle in hierarchical societies. “The White Ribbon” is as much about an unwillingness to face the truth and factual evidence as it is about total, corrupting power and the accompanying paralyzing fear of its underlings that fortifies subjugation and indomitable authority.

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