Child abuse fable


The White Ribbon (M). Director: Michael Haneke. Starring: Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Burghart Klaußner, Rainer Bock. Running time: 144 minutes

The White RibbonGerman auteur Michael Haneke has been criticised for making films that are either cold and academic, or simply too clever for their own good. The villain in Funny Games, for example, breaks the fourth wall to implicate the audience in his acts of violence. This allows Haneke as filmmaker and cultural commentator to both have and eat his cake, by at once presenting a violent film and making his audience feel guilty about watching it. This is a nifty trick, although a scene where the villain uses a remote control to rewind and replay onscreen bloodshed is a postmodern twist too far.

Haneke's latest film, The White Ribbon, seems at first likely to head down a similar path. It contains a voiceover narration that begins with words to the effect of 'I don't know if everything I'm about to tell you is true'. This would seem to be a red flag. Perhaps our storyteller is donning the hat of the illywhacker, warming up to a far fetched yarn where truth takes a back seat to the sensational. Haneke, in turn, seems to be warming his hands for another bout of funny postmodern games.

But there's nothing so heavy handed at play here. To an extent, Haneke is simply offering a nod to the layers of subjectivity that exist whenever stories are told and listened too. In film, events are presented from the particular perspective of the filmmaker, and in turn are interpreted through the gaze of the viewer. In this case, there is the added subjective lens of an unreliable narrator. This does provide a further complication to Haneke's convoluted period drama.

It's subtle though, and easily forgotten once this bleakly elegant mystery begins to unfold. The narrator takes us to an early 20th century German village where as a young man (Friedel) he served as a schoolteacher. His story is punctuated by three violent events. The first is the hobbling of the local doctor (Bock) by a hidden tripwire. This appears to be a deliberate attack on the Doctor, but the motives and culprit are not apparent.

The subsequent acts acts of violence involve the sexualised beating of two young boys. The first of these is the son of the Baron (Tukur) upon whom many villagers depend for their livelihood. The crime exacerbates the prejudices and class envy inherent to the feudal system. The hunt for the culprit begins in earnest, but without success. When a second, handicapped boy is similarly assaulted, it is clear they have a serial offender on their hands.

The Teacher has theories, but only belatedly does he turn detective. For much of the movie, he is instead preoccupied by his courtship of a much younger (teenage) woman (Benesch). This subplot provides further hints that he is an unreliable, perhaps compromised narrator. For although according to his account her resistance is due to timidity and disapproving parents, there is something vaguely threatening in his gently forceful advances.

In fact the abuse of the young by those who are older and more responsible (read powerful) is a recurring theme in the film. There's the recovering Doctor, a widower who is implied to have been sexually assaulting his teenage daughter. Also the Pastor (Klaußner), who berates and belittles his children when they misbehave, in a way that clearly stings more than the canings he administers, and which can categorically be defined as child abuse.

The most potent example occurs when this arrogantly pious man terrifies and humiliates his barely adolescent son with tall tales about a painful, prolonged and fatal illness that can be contracted through masturbation, in which the boy has evidently been privately engaging. From this point on the boy is forced to sleep with his hands bound to the sides of his bed — to keep him pure, no doubt.

We are led to believe these secret acts of parental abuse lay at the rotten core of the more public crimes that have occurred in the village. But again we must wonder about the storyteller, the Teacher's reliability — recall his opening words. Does he know of the abuse as fact? If so, how? Is he relying on second or third hand testimony? Or, worse, speculating and gossiping as a way to fill the gaps in his own limited knowledge and understanding?

Furthermore, what is the nature of his story: fabricated alibi? witness testimony? veiled confession? or simply an attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible?

These are interesting questions to mull over, but without them the film remains a compelling and disturbing fable about the abuse of children, and the violence that is taught to them as it is enacted upon them.

It's no coincidence that news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the resulting war, arrives like a bruise on the face of the film's final act. Violence begets violence, Haneke reminds us — although it's a lesson that remains largely unlearnt by the members of this tiny village of the damned, where patriarchal obfuscation ultimately means that the shocking truth is never fully known.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke, Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Burghart Klaußner



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Existing comments

Oh come on, give the German pastor a fair go and blame the masturbation thing on the Catholic church and the Mortal sin and Confession thing. Apart from child abuse by priests what about the boys and girls not to say some adults especially those in religious orders, whose minds were tormented by the questioning in the confessional by men who were directed into their ways by a perverted church led by perverted theologians !!
philip | 13 May 2010

What a curious review, did we see the same film? Firstly it was set in the early 20th century, not the 19th. This may seem a trivial criticism of a probable typo but the time is crucial to the story as we are told by the narrator that the events may offer some insight as to what happened to Germany in later years (ie the Nazi era).

None of my friends that have seen the film made mention of the Teacher's reliability as a story-teller, and I never felt there was anything at all sinister in his advances towards Eva. These seem odd elements to focus on in a film that puts to us the damaging effect of late 19th century European Christian morality (sexual and otherwise) on a whole generation of children.

The other questions that Tim Kroenert has put forward for us to "mull over" seem to me to be of minor relevance to the moral issues raised in the film.
And of course there is no doubt that the boy's hands were tied to the bed to prevent masturbation, why on earth else?

The White Ribbon is a powerful and important film and what is especially striking is the sheer beauty of the cinematography; virtually every scene is a masterful composition with clear references to the art and photography of that time.
Don't miss it, it is yet another fantastic film from the German speaking world; we have been lucky in recent years to have had films such as The Lives of Others, The Counterfeiters, The Edge of Heaven and now The White Ribbon. They are doing something right over there!
chris gow | 13 May 2010

Chris, you're right, 19th century was a typo and I've fixed it. Thanks.

Thanks also for offering your complementary take on the film. Actually I think your assessment is spot on. I suppose it's personal taste that drew me to the postmodern elements a bit more.


Tim Kroenert | 13 May 2010

Typos are indeed annoying! Thanks for your kind reply.
Actually I thought the film had an interesting post-modernist viewpoint, for once the referencing did not have that nihilistic irony of so much post-modernism, it had meaning beyond mere cleverness.

And the scene where the dead farm-labourer's wife is laid to rest in their humble cottage; worth the cost of admission for that alone, so reminiscent of a Flemish master!
chris gow | 13 May 2010

Let’s face it, Philip(12-May-2010), many people have simply not learnt how to be parents from their own parents; many people are simply not meant to be clergy. They have not even bothered to take on board Christ’s serious caution: “it would be better for such a person (child abuser) to hang a rock around his throat and throw himself into the sea to drown”. This is how seriously Christ regarded such a heinous sin. Such evil people (using the Church as a cover) must be banished forever from the Church and never again slip under the radar. This also applies to teachers, coaches, judges, parents, step-parents, as well as all secular organisations.

As for the notion of sin and the importance of self-discipline: there is an old saying: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny”.

And here, the most effective teaching by parents is by gentle and loving example and by being a living example - by being Christ-like.
Matt | 18 May 2010


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