Arthur Conan Doyle found the English countryside seething with potential criminality. His sleuth creation of Sherlock Holmes was never deceived by the tranquil image of the country retreat and escape from the industrialized centre. London, with its bustle, filth and squalor, was a far more decent option. One finds the same theme repeated in such writers as John Mortimer, who only ever lets his famed advocate Rumpole venture out into the country occasionally for a brief. All tend to end badly. Cynicism towards country life, dominated by casual cruelties and sudden death, is ever present.
This case is brilliantly depicted in Michael Haneke’s black and white The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band), a portrait of a north German village in 1913. The narrator (Ernst Jacobi), who is also a teacher (Christian Friedel) resident in that village during the crucial years, speaks of various mysteries that affected its inhabitants. An attempt is seemingly made on the village doctor’s (Rainer Bock) life through tripping his horse by a wire that is mysteriously removed. The wife of the farmer is killed in an accident. Two children, including one with Down syndrome (Eddy Grahl), are found abused in the woods. The estate barn is burned down; and the cabbage crop destroyed. The police are eventually called in, but they are incapable of making sense of it.
One is struck by the savageries that underpin the existence of the villagers. This is a Europe still bound by its manorial ties, the dominant feudal figure who still dispenses favors and promises retribution when disobedience arises. That figure is the paternal Baron (Ulrich Tukur). In this sense, the agrarian scene with aristocratic sensibilities salutes, at least in part, Bernado Bertolucci’s 1900, though it proves less panoramic and has a more subtle, unsettling political agenda. There is no talk about socialism, oppression or any such thing. The only suggestion that things might change at all is the sudden onset of war. One is left with the vendetta, the personal thirst for revenge, and the sheer, asphyxiating sense of repression.
The lives are brutal. Fathers cane their children; children are tortured in the forest; and sexual abuse is rife in the home. Relationships are stunningly cruel. As is the nature of abuse, its multiplication is logical. The children also prove beastly to each other. Jealousy is rife. Theft is normal. And, as the film shows well, there are many children to go around. Another notable feature of the film is the sheer overwhelming presence of youth. The child actors are strikingly expressive, whether they faint, deceive or offer gestures of kindness.
The White Ribbon portrays in superb fashion a Protestant moral authority and discipline. No figure of discipline in the order of life is better exemplified than that of the priest, played by the formidable Burghart Klaussner. His children, with every infraction against the moral law, must wear the white ribbon as a reminder of purity. Is this the antecedent suggested by the yellow star that Jews will bear during the Third Reich? The steely austerity of the priest’s home, the archaic practices and attitudes towards such self-pleasures as Onanism, make audiences squirm. Masturbation remains a fundamental evil deserving shackles. The priest is happy to do this to his own son in the hope that he will be cured. After all, ‘touching oneself’ might result in sensory failure and a dramatically shortened life. In a treatise from 1760, we find the writer Tissot claiming that a loss of semen produces illnesses: debility, consumption, and a loss of eyesight.
The themes of purity and degeneration, moral propriety and immoral disposition, are the simple binaries that are meant to make sense of an untidy life. Such tendencies are time immemorial in the village. It is for this reason that the teacher looks confused in this setting, oblivious to the malicious world he is a part of. His fiancée Eva (Leonie Benesch), nanny in the Baron’s service, is sweetly endearing – she wisely says little. Her awkwardness in the structured nature of the society she grows up in is refreshing.
There is no satisfactory resolution to the crimes and misdemeanors committed in the village. The perpetrators are never found, and one is left with the realization that the enemy is, as is often the case, within. This study of village life can never offer solutions to deep-seated human desires, nor does it portend to. Lies mould together, forming an inscrutable fabric of hidden messages and meanings. One might not even be able to trust the account of the narrator. The villagers, stewing in their pungent stew of gossip and make-believe are simply not interested in setting the story straight. All this starts making the country retreat less palatable, and one starts feeling for the Baroness (Ursina Lardi), who desires to flee from this world of malice to the warmer comforts of her lover in Italy. The children, on the other hand, will be the bearers of another far more pernicious order, well past the First World War.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com