If any of you put a stumbling block before one of
these little ones who believe in me, it would be
better for you if a great millstone were fastened
around your neck and you were drowned in the
depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of
stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are
bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the
stumbling block comes!
Those who love the who-dunnits of the 40s and 50s, in which the clever detective explains how he solved the crime, will be frustrated by Michael Haneke’s tale of crimes committed in secret in the Protestant village of Eichwald, located in the northern part of Germany. As related years later by the village’s School Teacher (Ernst Jacobi), the time is just before the outbreak of the First World War, and the rural society is ruled by two patriarchs, one in control of the community’s social and economic affairs, and the other of the spiritual and educational— the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), for whom a large percentage of the villagers work, and the Pastor (Burghart Klaussner), who preaches a stern and moralistic religion to high and low each Sunday. Three other adults who wield a smaller measure of power are the Doctor (Rainer Bock) and the Schoolteacher (Christian Friedel playing him when he was young), and the Baroness (Ursina Lardi). The English translation of the film’s original title is “The White Ribbon: A German Children’s Story.” Do not let this subtitle fool you. There is a schoolroom full of children in the tale, but this dark tale is not for children. It is intended for adults willing to peer into the shadowy depths of the human heart and encounter the corruption to be found there.
Michael Haneke, the maker of the mysterious Caché, a film about an unknown person spying on a French family with a video camera, is not out to make another Sound of Music or Chitty Chitty Bang-bang story based on the belief in the innocence of children. This filmmaker is exploring the roots of what went so horribly wrong in Germany and Europe during the first half of what some optimists were calling the “Christian Century.” There is still a vestige of the feudal age in the Baron, a man not very popular because of his lack of concern for the welfare of his workers. When a woman falls to her death through the rotted floor of his barn, her son blames the Baron, but is momentarily held back by his father, who must work for the Baron because their own small farm does not bring in enough to feed the family. The son does take his vengeance out by chopping into pieces the Baron’s large cabbage patch, but this leads to tragic consequences. Nor are the death of the mother and the despoiling of the cabbages the first crimes. The film begins with the Doctor taking a hard fall when his horse stumbles over a trip wire strung up for that purpose. His daughter is looking out the window at the time. A somber looking group of children then come, pretending to be interested in the Doctor’s little Downs Syndrome son.
Religious power is wielded by the Pastor, who also apparently is over the Teacher. The faith of the Pastor is so sternly moralistic that all of the joy of Christianity has been snuffed out. For being late the Pastor gives the children a tongue lashing and then the promise of a caning later on. He orders his oldest daughter and son to wear a white ribbon as a reminder that they are to be pure. When he becomes worried about the pale appearance of this son, he jumps to the wrong conclusion that the boy has been masturbating, ordering that his hands be tied to his bed at night.
There are other deaths, including what might or might not be a suicide; spouse abuse; rape of a daughter—such dark deeds that the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, wherein we see a neat, attractive neighborhood with children playing and people mowing their lawns: then the camera in a close-up sequence takes us beneath the surface to reveal all kinds of creepy bugs and corruption. With no reference to the wide-spread anti-Semitism of the time, Haneke suggests that a mixture of abusive paternalism and strict religious fervor devoid of love can result in the horror that engulfed a nation and the world. Certainly for those attempting to follow the one who said “let the little children come to me,” this is a community that could never have understood his later warning about causing a little one to stumble. Although we want to find out who is behind the series of crimes, Haneke apparently prefers that we look at the structure and values of the society that can produce such a perpetrator (or perpetrators). His concern is not for the crimes, but for the children—what happens to them when raised in a loveless environment and made to pay a harsh penalty for things they did not do, and what they are then capable of when they become they grow up.
1. What did you see in the film that showed this was a patriarchal society? How is everything stacked in favor of those wielding power? Which characters represent power, and which the ruled?
2. What mood or feeling does the film evoke? How does the B&W photography contribute to this? Would color add anything, or would it subtract from it?
3. Compare it to other films in which children are important? How is this one similar to Lord of the Flies?
4. When the Doctor is felled by the trip wire, who is looking on, and who shows up right away?
5. Describe what you think is the nature of the Minister’s religion? Do you see any joy in it? What seems central to his moral system? How does his emphasis upon punishment perhaps contribute to the various crimes? That is, do you think the persons committing the crimes did so to punish the victim? List the various victims: in what way are they guilty of something deserving of punishment? (Or, in the case of the well-born boy, could it be his father?)
6. What do you think of the Pastor’s forcing Klara and Martin to wear a white ribbon? Do you think it will be a symbol of purity for them—or of shame and oppression? Why do you think later that her father blames her for the unruly behavior of the students? What does Klara eventually do to her father’s bird? See any irony in what it looks like after her deed?
7. What about the Pastor’s tying Martin’s hands to his bed at night? What does this reveal about the way in which the Pastor and/or the church view sex?
8. As a little boy talks with Ana about death, what do we learn that his father has told him about his mother? How is this apparently the first time that anyone has been honest with him about death? Why do you think he reacts in anger to the news that his mother has not gone away on a trip, but died? Can you remember your own first encounter with death or awareness of your own mortality?
9. When he finally returns what do we learn about the Doctor? Not so tender or kind, is he? What else has he apparently been doing, as his young son discovers one night?
10. Do you think that the perpetrator of the various crimes is a single person, or the group of children? Or is the mayhem the result of some force seeking vengeance on those who deserve punishment?
11. Read the 7th chapter of the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans and reflect on what light it sheds on the various characters. Of the adults, which seem free of the faults evinced by the others? How does their innocence bring a note of relief to the dark happenings? Also, the Baroness: what do you think of her final decision? Do you think she will be able to free herself and her son from the effects of what has happened?
12. Also, Jesus’ words from Matthew 18:6-7, with his warning of woe: what stumbling blocks do the adults place in the paths of their children?
13. Director Haneke never brings in the anti-Semitism so prevalent in German society at the time (indeed, in all societies!): do you think what he does show us in the way that the children are treated in their patriarchal society is enough explanation for the rise of fascism and its hold on the adults which these children will grow up to be?
14. Do you believe it is significant that it is mainly the children who are given personal names—most of the adults we know only by their occupation or station in life? What singular act of grace do we see in the film? What effect does the young son’s bringing the bird he has been nursing seem to have on the father?