Like a prophecy fulfilled ...

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Publication: Canadian Mennonite
Author: Kessler, Karl
Date published: December 20, 2010

Like a prophecy fulfilled ...

The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band).

Director/writer: Michael Haneke. Sony Pictures Classics, 2009; DVD release, 2010.

German, with English subtitles. Rating 14A.


"I don't know if the story I want to I tell you is entirely true," confesses the narrator of The White Ribbon, as the top prizewinner at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival opens on the fictional German village of Eichwald in 1913. But if the former village schoolteacher, now elderly, doubts the truth of his memory, filmmaker Michael Haneke has no misgivings about using the teacher's recollections to propose some hard truths.

Because of its themes and setting, the story has been interpreted as foreshadowing Nazi Germany, and for its mysteries reviewers have described it as a "whodunit". But if it is a mystery, its trail of clues is a red herring, because it does something more important than keep us wondering who did what to whom. The White Ribbon is a "why-dunit."

In spite of a series of disturbing misdeeds and suspicious mishaps in Eichwald, life there continues its steady, seasonal rhythm. The Lutheran church regularly fills to overflowing. Most of the villagers eke out a living as tenant farmers or labourers on the local baron's estate.

But Eichwald's men preside over the village like a looming threat. The pastor is an austere disciplinarian who inspects his straight-laced household constantly, combing for sins that he imagines everywhere. The baron's steward is a short-tempered brute. The doctor is secretly abusive.

The girls of the village seem shrewd and strong-spirited, while most of the women are intimidated and ill-treated. The boys are mostly downcast, skittish, always braced for a physical or emotional slap.

However, both the young schoolteacher and a nanny in the baron's house- who engage in a tender courtship- are decent and kindhearted, and when the teacher suspects the children of knowing about, or possibly committing, the crimes, he seeks to uncover the facts. But if the children are guilty, their sin is imitation, wielding what little power they have in manipulative, destructive ways they learned from their elders and their upbringing.

The White Ribbon stirs questions, offers few answers and has inspired much debate, but it seems to say we create our own monsters, often in incongruous places. Implicit in Haneke's man-made hell on earth is the suggestion that we should know better, but what may be missing is any hope that we will do better. As the story closes, World War I is breaking out like a prophecy fulfilled, while the villagers file into church as the children's choir sings "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."

Author affiliation:

Karl Kessler is a member of Erb Street Mennonite Church, Waterloo, Ont.

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