Michael Haneke’s latest movie “The White Ribbon”, which opens this December at theaters everywhere, received my vote for best foreign film in 2009. Shot in black-and-white, it is the study of social relations in a German farming village on the eve of WWI. Nominally, a “whodunit” about a spate of incomprehensibly gratuitous violent crimes, it is much more of an attempt on Haneke’s part to understand the rise of fascism in Germany. Despite his claim that the movie is more generally about authoritarianism, it serves—at least for this viewer—as the artistic counterpart of Arno Mayer’s groundbreaking “The Persistence of the Old Regime”. For both Mayer and Haneke, the persistence of feudal relationships not only explains WWI, but the rise of fascism and WWII as well. Although Nazism is most associated with the motto Kinder, Küche, Kirche, “The White Ribbon” illustrates that these values had deep roots in German society. And Haneke’s main goal is to show their underlying perverse realities.
Unlike any film I have seen in years, “The White Ribbon” has the dimensions of a novel. The farming village is a kind of self-contained world in which each character’s path crosses with another, often fatally. The instruments of death ironically are very likely the children of the village’s Protestant pastor and their classmates in the local school. Early on the film, we seem them walking in a kind of procession down the main street. With their starched collars and corn-silk blond hair, they give the impression of angels. The more we see of them, however, the more we are reminded of “The Village of the Damned”.
The first crime in the movie is against the village doctor, who is spilled from his horse when it runs into a wire tied between two trees near his house. Immediately afterwards, we see two of the children emerge from the bushes.
However, this is not anything like “Village of the Damned”. Despite the fact that the police are eventually called from the outside to solve the crime spree, there is no final scene when a Lieutenant Colombo or Hercule Poirot reveals the killer. This is a function of Haneke’s determination to reveal the true crimes, which would never have been prosecuted in a German court for they ultimately uphold the values of Kinder, Küche, Kirche that the nation revered.
Three men symbolize the village’s warped ethos. At the top of the ladder is The Baron (Ulrich Tukur) who exemplifies Junker values. The villagers depend on him for their livelihood even when he is indifferent to their most basic needs. When the wife of one of his peasant hands falls to death in his sawmill (either from rotting floors or sabotage), her oldest son takes revenge in the best way known to him. During a harvest celebration paid for by the Baron, a kind of seasonal ritual going back perhaps a thousand years, he sneaks off to the Baron’s cabbage path and hacks it to pieces with his scythe. After he is caught, the Baron takes retribution by firing his father who then hangs himself in despair. In the feudal conditions of prewar Germany, labor markets in the countryside were as static as one of the levels in Dante’s Inferno.
Beneath the Baron is the Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) who is enough to turn anybody into an atheist. A rigidly authoritarian figure, especially to his own children, he decides to tie his teenaged son’s hands to the bed each night to prevent him from masturbating. The name of the movie originates from his decision to force his children to wear white ribbons as a reminder of their sins.
Finally, there is the Doctor (Rainer Bock, who played a Nazi general in “Inglourious Basterds”), who treats his long-time mistress, a midwife in his hire, as a piece of dirt. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, he hurls invective at her in the course of explaining why he chooses not to screw her any longer. In the absence of the kind of physical violence that usually accompanies such a scene (face slaps, etc.), it reaches a far higher level of pain. His hatred for women is palpable.
Within this deranged universe, there is one voice of sanity. It is the local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) who provides voice over commentary throughout the film. He symbolizes the urbane enlightenment values that get trampled underfoot in this rural dungeon held together by the iron bars of Protestantism and Privilege.
In an interview that appears in the Winter 2009 Cineaste, director Haneke explains his purpose:
The screenplay for the film has already existed for ten years. And before the script was completed I had already spent quite a few years on developing the idea. It is difficult to name a specific impulse or point of origin. There is a risk of naming things retroactively, of rationalizing the biography, when the development of such a project always tends to be affected by many coincidences. What made a big impression on me was a documentary about Eichmann and his trial in Israel. I was stunned by this man, who completely lacked any conscience, and by his attempt at justification: that he was a dutiful civil servant, that he merely did his job for the benefit of the state, and that he was actually uncomfortable with the fact that he had to do what he did. This mentality dumbfounded me. This fanaticism–that people don’t realize what kinds of things they cause.
Italian fascism was not exactly funny either, but the justifications of its criminals show that it articulated itself in very different ways. In Germany, it was the absolute belief in the “right thing”–the National Socialist ideology of the “Volk”–as well as a certain ideology of efficiency, which already has a lot to do with Protestantism, particularly with Lutheranism. There is, of course, also the Protestantism of Thomas Münzer, which was different, closer to communism. Lutheran Protestantism has always very much identified itself with authority.
While Haneke clearly intended the schoolteacher to be the character audiences would most clearly identify with, we are left with the conclusion that he was odd man out in pre-WWI Germany. This was a society soaked in feudal backwardness even as it was home to some of the most advanced industrial technologies in the world and a large socialist movement.
Turning to Arno Mayer’s “The Persistence of the Old Regime”, we discover why this was the case. It was rooted in the material reality of class relations. Germany, like most of Europe including even Britain, had never made a clean break with the powerful agrarian aristocracy.
Mayer makes the economics behind this quite clear. While Germany had the reputation, even deservedly so, as an industrial powerhouse, no more than 15 percent of the population was employed in the capital goods sector (steel, machine tools, etc.) Meanwhile, the landed aristocracy enjoyed enormous power through its vast holdings. A mere 3000 individuals owned some 15 percent of Germany’s arable land. Around the turn the turn of the century, more than 60 percent of the active work force was farm hands like those depicted in “The White Ribbon”.
Even as the new industrial bourgeoisie was in the ostensible position to assert itself, it was habitually appropriating the symbols and values of the feudal classes. Mayer writes:
Indeed, not only in Prussia but throughout Germany the nonagrarian economic elites and their retainers in the free professions never sought or found an autonomous social, cultural, and political ground from which to challenge the old society. The new men of exceptional wealth and talent fervently solicited or accepted the imperial and noble seal. In particular during the half-century preceding 1914, the “enriched bourgeois” systematically pressed their procurement of titles that legitimized “their connection with the dominant class and . . . adapted the new social forces to the old aristocratic environment,” thereby also “reinvigorating” the formerly hostile nobility with “new blood and new economic energy.” With equal effectiveness and greater frequency the new capitalists, after appropriating the aristocratic life-style, propelled their sons to become reserve officers, to join dueling fraternities, and to marry into the old society. This social climbing, including the ennobling marriages of daughters, never really waned. Nor was it dismissed as either ludicrous or eccentric. In fact, it may be said to have intensified with the atrophy of liberalism before 1914.
Interestingly enough, few reviewers or even Haneke himself makes the connection between “The White Ribbon” and American society today with its nonstop eruptions of small town idiocy, symbolized by Sarah Palin and the tea-baggers. Perhaps if the movie had been released during the Bush presidency, more commentators would have made the connection. Ironically, it has been Obama’s failure to take on these retrograde forces on that has emboldened him. Like the bourgeois elites of Arno Mayer’s fin de siècle Germany, Obama seems more intent on honoring the remnants of feudalism, including Saudi sheikhs and Japanese royalty. What Mayer refers to as the “atrophy of liberalism” is something of a chronic condition in the body politic.
In the final analysis, many of America’s problems stem from the “persistence of the old regime” here as well. When the U.S. ruling class had the opportunity to extirpate the landed gentry in the South, it lost its nerve during Reconstruction and allowed the Deep South to remain as a bastion against democratic rule and enlightenment values. The fight to preserve the flag of Dixie on State Capitol buildings throughout the South, and the failure of the Democrats to move forcefully on this issue, shows how persistent the old regime can be.
Ultimately the German working class gathered the social power and the self-confidence to challenge the old regime, but lost out to the fascists because of an inept leadership. While nobody can predict the pace of the class struggle in the U.S. and whether such a showdown will emerge in the near future, we can certainly understand and must act on the urgent need to develop a political leadership among working people that can confront our native would-be Adolph Hitlers.