The White Ribbon is, as it is proclaimed at the beginning of the film: “A German’s Children Story”. It is narrated by the School Teacher who is now in his late years, and has presumably survived two World Wars. He says “I don’t know if the story I am about to tell you is entirely true… After so many years a lot of it is still obscure and many questions remain unanswered. But I think I must tell of the strange events that occurred in our village. They could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country.” This narrator’s statement is crucial for understanding this film. We find out that he is possibly an unreliable narrator and that the series of events which took place are still clouded in mystery.
Our trust in the narrator is shaken from the very beginning, since he is the one who was not only an observer, but actively participated in the events. His own vision may be clouded by the limitations of his personal experience. The other important aspect of his introduction into this tale is that he states that the events which occurred in a village in Northern Germany in 1913 may clarify “some things that happened in this country”. This is obviously a reference to National Socialism, but I believe that it is a reference to the First World War as well, in fact to any kind of organized mass violence which occurred.
A village doctor has a riding accident; he fell off his horse and after the investigation it was realized that an almost invisible wire was placed on the road, with the intention to injure the doctor, or even kill him. In the next scene, we see the Baroness playing the piano and her strict behavior towards her son shows the nature of family relationships in the village, although the Baroness is one of the kinder of its inhabitants. The village Pastor sends his children to bed hungry, and the punishment for their misbehaviour are ten strokes with a cane.
His endeavor is to create responsible and obedient individuals, his mode of upbringing is without a doubt authoritarian. He humiliates his children, some of them being in early adolescence, by tying a white ribbon around their hands, which symbolizes innocence and purity. He infantilizes his children in this manner, making them completely dependable on their father’s authority. It is an act of punishment, and the symbolism of white ribbon is intricately woven into film’s narration.
The Pastor’s son Martin walks on the bridge’s parapet, and when the School Teacher sees him, he rushes to him and asks him to explain his behaviour. Martin’s answer is that he gave a chance to God to kill him. Speaking psychoanalytically, it seems that he understands God as an omnipotent Father, in a similar manner he sees his own father, the Pastor. By acts of punishment and scolding, the Pastor produces guilt in his children, making them submissive and tortured by the too strict superego.
The wife of one of the farmers dies in an accident at work. It seems that her death may not be an accident, and her son blames the Baron, cutting down his cabbages, possibly inspired by the folk tradition. A short period of normalization takes place during the harvest feast which is a combination of joy and later horror and perplexity. Baron’s son Sigi is taken to the woods, tied up and beaten with a cane – it is important that this act of ritual punishment which is being used in The White Ribbon is performed in the same way as the Pastor, and most likely other parents, punish their children.
In a particularly elaborated scene, the Pastor speaks to his son Martin about the dangers of masturbation and the sickness it supposedly brings upon young individuals. He ties his son to bed every night. In the next scene, we see that the doctor has sex with his housekeeper, and brutally abuses her verbally afterwards. The atmosphere in the village is one of malice, fear and we can see that the relations, between the ones in the position of power and those who are subordinated, are based on domination.
In The White Ribbon we see little trust between children and their parents, their relationship is based on threats and violence, and thus domination. As the film progresses, we see that two individuals in a position of authority have been harmed – the doctor in his riding accident and the Baron, when his son was beaten with a cane. I find this to be important for the understanding of the main idea which is present throughout the film, in a similar manner in which white ribbons are constantly being put back on children’s hand when they are found guilty of wrongdoing.
We see a fire burning in the village, a looming sign and a symbol of dread which is to come, and that the father of a young man who cut down Baron’s cabbages has committed suicide. Since then his family has fallen out Baron’s favour and was left to starve, a villager in a state of desperation took his life. This shows the degree of the villagers’ dependence on one person which holds supreme authority in the community, and the doom which awaits those who oppose him. Yet, the culprits who beat his son have not been found, and the Baroness went to Italy for a period of time, most likely out of fear for her child.
At this point, a romance which occurs between the School Teacher and a young woman who was a nanny for the Baroness’ twins must be mentioned. It is the only heart-warming part of the film; her shyness and his devotion are an island of tenderness in a harsh world of exploitation and domination. The Pastor finds his young daughter to be irresponsible and reprimands her, while we find out that a horrendous affair is going on in Doctor’s own family. He repeatedly rapes his fourteen-year-old daughter, and in a particularly horrifying scene we see his other child, the son, catching him in the act.
In the next scene, we see Pastor’s bird he loves, killed and nailed to his table with scissors. It is most likely that his daughter did it. The powerful juxtaposition of these two scenes reveal the main idea of the film. Violence imposed on a child results in further violence, a desperate act of vengeance. Doctor’s sexual violence against his own daughter is juxtaposed to the revenge which Pastor’s daughter, as we can presume, committed against her own father.
This circle of violence starts when the helplessness of the children transforms into inclination toward revenge and a form of ritual punishment their fathers have inflicted on them. Haneke’s understanding of the origin of violence is vividly portrayed in the desire of the oppressed to oppress the weaker. One of the children asks the School Teacher if dreams can come true. She refers to real dreams, not wishes, and tells him that she had a dream that something terrible will happen to the son of Doctor’s housewife, a child with Down syndrome.
Soon, something terrible does happen to him, he is beaten and almost blinded in the attack in the woods. Another act of ritual punishment occurs, and this time, on a rather helpless being. On a piece of paper next to the wounded child it reads: “For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children unto the third and fourth generation”. In the Book of Leviticus it also says: “Because of their iniquity, and also because of the iniquities of their fathers they shall rot away like them.”
It seems that these lines perfectly capture the state of the children in the film. They feel cursed because of the iniquities of their fathers towards them, but also understand that they are rotten in turn, and resort to violence as a result. The girl’s “dream” that something could happen to the child with a disability, although it is plausible that she lied and someone told her that it will happen, can be interpreted as an unconscious desire of the children to do harm to the helpless, as the harm was inflicted upon them, who are rather helpless as well, in relation to their fathers.
These acts of violence against children are shown again, when one villager brutally beats his child because it was playing an instrument, in the wake of the assassination of Crown Prince Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Thus, the circle closes, the fathers have started the First World War, an organized violence en masse, and the children will take part in the Second, also started by Germany, since “because of the iniquities of their fathers they shall rot away like them”.
At the end, the School Teacher starts to doubt whether the children have committed the crimes in the form of ritual punishment, and when he tells that to the Pastor, the latter is disgusted by those accusations. He tells the School Teacher that it is obvious that this thought is only possible because he, the School Teacher, does not have children himself. In their children, parents see the possibility of a better world, a world of progress toward a more humane and just society.
Haneke grimly suggests that this is an illusion. History repeats itself because the violence of the fathers is repeated by their children, an eternal recurrence, to borrow Nietzsche’s term, but giving it a different meaning, is the nature of things. It is not entirely certain if the children committed those crimes, although many details in the film suggest it.
It is possible that the midwife tried to murder the Doctor who abused her and his own daughter, and that she nearly blinded her own child since he is a product of the relationship with the Doctor. It is not clear, in this scenario, why the Baron’s son was beaten. Both possible perpetrators have their motives, but in both cases, Haneke’s message is clear. Violence breeds more violence; it is a never-ending circle of horror with no end in sight.