Austria, Germany, France, Italy, 2009
Directed by Michael Haneke
With Christian Friedel (the schoolteacher), Burghart Klaussner (the pastor), Rainer Bock (the doctor), Susanne Lothar (Wagner, the midwife), Ulrich Tukur (the baron), Ursina Lardi (Marie-Louise, the baroness), Josef Bierbichler (the baron’s steward), Branko Samarovski (Felder, the farmer), Leonie Benesch (Eva), Maria Dragus (Klara), Leonard Proxauf (Martin), Roxane Duran (Anna), Miljan Châtelain (Rudolf), Eddy Grahl (Karli), Fion Mutert (Sigmund)
From the summer of 1913 to the summer of 1914, a few but nasty, spectacular incidents mar the life of a quiet village in northern Germany. First the doctor is badly hurt when his horse trips over a wire stretched between trees leading to his garden. Then the wife of a peasant gets killed when the floor where she is standing in a sawmill suddenly collapses. A few weeks later, after the harvests, the son of the local baron is kidnapped, he is later tied and badly whipped. After the winter the baron’s barn is set on fire. Soon after the son of the midwife, who has learning disabilities, is also kidnapped: he is tied too but this time gets his eyes mutilated. But this grim series of attacks and the disquiet it feeds are brought to an abrupt end by the onset of the First World War.
These facts are remembered by an old man who speaks over black and white pictures. At the time he was the local schoolteacher; he later fought in the war and when he came back to the region, where he was born, decided to become a tailor like his late father. Now, he just airs these memories because, however puzzling this string of appalling incidents was, he feels that they could cast some light on later developments he witnessed in the wider society. This initial statement thus suggests a lesson could be drawn for his community; it echoes the few words written in an old-fashion, barely legible but carefully chosen calligraphy completing the film’s title, which mean: “A Story of German Children” – but this translation is not featured in copies released beyond German-speaking countries, a decision that the director Michael Haneke was keen to take and it is not the only personal and radical choice that puts the film on a league of its own.
To choose a village which is so economically and socially dependent on a typical member of the old aristocracy (it took quite a time, it seems, to find the perfect location for the film) and to give the center stage to the family of the influential Protestant minister are deliberately calibrated narrative moves focusing the film on the kind of social hierarchy and its straight-laced rules that have long been associated with Germany. Another telling decision is not to give full names to the men holding authority – they remain the baron, the pastor, the schoolteacher, the steward, and the doctor. Other men barely feature in the film, with the exception of the farmer who loses his wife at the sawmill and his elder son, who tries to protest; they are the protagonists of a tragic episode emphasizing their depressing poverty and inability to change things; and they are remarkably the only male characters to get a name. Names are used mainly for the women and the children. But, like the peasants, if getting an identity enables them to be easily recognized and acknowledged by the audience, it is also a poignant irony as inside their homes they are just second-rate persons.
This is a world where it is expected and legitimate to respect the men holding authority – and those men clearly consider this respect is naturally due, even overdue. Their persona and intimate feelings are irrelevant to what they socially are; they are a power that cannot be challenged or judged, no matter what. Punishment and humiliation are the necessary tools to assert and defend this power.
The pastor’s chilling attitude towards his eldest children, Klara and Martin, make this point clear as soon as the characters are introduced at the film’s beginning. Haneke shows in the wake of the dreadful episode how deep this sense of authority runs through the society: many kids usually cannot avoid physical punishment whatever their age and social position; even the poor farmer easily slaps his adult son’s face and shouts after him. Influence and dignity are denied to women. Even when they have a strong argument with their lovers, neither Wagner, the midwife, nor Marie-Louise, the baroness, manage to convey determination and to have the pluck to simply slam the door; they stand helpless in front of the doctor and the baron, shot in low angle. The romance between the schoolteacher and Eva feels like a romantic relief till it hits the wall of the patriarchal authority under the guise of the cynical and curt behavior of Eva’s father when both young lovers wish to marry each other. The doctor’s kind and learned manners belie a misogynistic and overbearing state of mind (the scene when he tells Wagner he no longer loves her is one of the cruelest disputes a camera may have so coldly captured while his attitudes towards his daughter Anna is sickening).
The only children escaping mistreatment are the baron’s and the midwife’s, the privileged one and the handicapped one; but Sigmund and Karli are going to be the helpless victims of whoever wants to trouble the order, claiming at one point to answer the call of a vengeful God. The narration does not dwell much time on the search for culprits, instead scrutinizing the behaviors of the characters. Some attitudes and the final thoughts of the schoolteacher do suggest a bunch of kids led by Klara and Martin could be responsible for the mess, but the film chooses not to give any compelling evidence.
This is a radical choice as the audience usually like to watch how a whodunit is solved. But the plot is rather a pretext to a withering survey of the relationships between the members of a small German community. Through a relentless behavioral analysis and geometrically precise composition shots Haneke emphasizes the prevalence and the perversion of a social tradition based on full acceptance of a superior’s authority. From the strict obedience to the Obrigkeit (the political powers of the Holy Empire) recommended by Martin Luther to the sense of discipline and order instilled by the Prussian regime, the need to respect social authorities has been deeply entrenched in the German collective psyche. Even the breathtaking modernization and unification of the late 19th century has rather led people to defend the importance and relevance of respecting the powers-that-be, in particular in the family. Haneke clearly anchors his vision inside the critical interrogations about German history and the weight of tradition-shaped mindsets, also raising the question of the individual reaction in the face of this worship of authority – is not violence a needed, perhaps unavoidable, response?
The white ribbon that Klara and Martin are compelled to wear to stay aware of the need for personal purity and morality, and which gives the film its title, is the symbol of the moralistic and rigid education the pastor and all men in authority force upon the population. But in the face of the real cruelty of their social order and of the growing malaise the incidents create it feels like a derisory tool of power – and the film’s arc perfectly suggests the reach of these men may be frailer than they think but still shows their behaviors are humiliating enough to have consequences their self-righteousness is so unwilling to countenance.