Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Das Weisse Band

On Monday Rachel and I went to go see The White Ribbon over at the Uptown Theater. It's a limited release film that picked up a ton of awards at Cannes, and this combined with the fact that it is German and had a really interesting premise made me really want to go see it.

The film is set in a small German town on the eve of the assassination of Archduke Franz. Our narrator is the local schoolteacher, though the camera certainly does not only follow his perspective on things. Right off the bat we know that something is amiss in this town, as the narrator informs us that "the mysterious accidents began with the Doctor as he was taking a ride in his garden." He then goes on to explain (as the camera shows) that someone had strung up invisible wire around two trees, causing his horse to collapse and him to be thrown violently from the saddle.

The "accidents" continue through the film and become even more brutal as the story continues, but they are almost simple side projects or merely symptoms in comparison with all of the other things that are going on in the village. We get intimate looks into five of the families in the town and each is wracked with hereditary violence, pride and an innate sense of righteousness. There is the pastor who solemenly punishes even the slightest infraction among his children with force and humiliation, the steward who is genial only so long as his job is not at stake, the baron and baronness who are detached from the cares of the villagers unless their own family is in harm, and this is to say nothing of the farmer or even more darkly the Doctor.

Each of these families has a patriarch who is convinced of his own right and that believes that he has the authority to carry out his will with whatever means are deemed necessary. This pride and violence are passed down to their children, who take out their frustration and rage against their unassailable parents in quiet and terrible ways. The title of the film, The White Ribbon, is an example of this. It is supposed to symbolize and serve as a reminder of purity and innocence, but is used as a humiliating form of punishment by the pastor.

I believe that it is this sense of righteousness and the need to be in control physically, mentally and morally that the director was talking about when he said that he wanted to show "perhaps a reason as to why what happened later did happen." The idea that a country can force a moral high ground on the rest of the world through force of arms is not such a far stretch from some of the quiet atrocities committed in this seemingly quiet village.

As you may have guessed, I was very impressed with this film but was also pretty traumatized by it. The acts shown in the story are often terrible but very believable, especially for the time period. There are definite beacons of hope, mainly in the schoolteacher's life. He lives seemingly untouched by the acts around him and manages to find others like him that show reasonable reactions to situations and attempt to treat their fellow man with respect. But even this has a dark edge, as while he attempts to figure out who is causing all of the incidents in town he lacks the conviction or ability to do anything about it. Then the war comes and his life takes a different turn, and, as he says, "I never saw anyone from that village again."

In the end (and, indeed, in the very beginning) we get a glimpse at who is causing all of the accidents, but it doesn't really matter. They were a symptom of passed on rage and frustration for which precious few of the characters know the cure.

Until next time...

"In early times some sufferer had to sit up with a toothache, and he put in the time inventing the German language."

- Mark Twain's Notebook #14, 11/1877 - 7/1878

No comments: