In 1914, Kafka wrote a story—unpublished in his lifetime—called “The Village Schoolmaster,” which chronicles the efforts of a local schoolmaster to document the appearance of a gigantic mole in a German village. It proves difficult to establish the existence of the mole beyond doubt, which only drives the schoolteacher to try harder. The similarity between Kafka’s story and The White Ribbon—the recent film by Michael Haneke (who directed an adaptation of The Castle in 1997)—may be purely coincidental, yet the film, set in 1913-14, also concerns a schoolteacher who sets out to record the existence of something difficult to establish but all the more important as a result: responsibility. In both stories, rumor and hearsay play important roles, as the narrator’s account of events is pitted against the persistent inscrutability of the villagers as a group. This erodes not only what it is possible for the narrator to know but what would follow from that knowledge, if it were indeed certain. In Kafka, the consequences of certain knowledge remain obscure, but in Haneke they are perfectly clear—criminals will be punished.
The schoolteacher who narrates The White Ribbon is an old man at the time of narration and a young man at the time of action. He details the events in Eichwald, a small Protestant village outside Berlin, on the eve of the First World War. Given the emphasis on his old age, his omission of what happens after 1914 is conspicuous. He tells of his romance with a local au pair, but leaves us to wonder how he and his fiancé, young and hopeful, fared through the coming years. But their love story is only the half of it, the sentimental hook to reel us in. The companion plot to the romance consists of a series of accidents and acts of violence that befall the villagers. A doctor’s horse trips on a wire, a farmer’s wife falls to her death through the rotten floor of a sawmill, two village children are cruelly tortured, a barn is set on fire, a field of cabbages is hacked to bits. These events happen in two clusters, the first in July, the second after the harvest festival in September. The film leaves many of these events unresolved, and the question of responsibility hangs over the village, fostering mistrust within families and between the landowning Baron and his laborers. But even as suspicion reaches a boiling point, the film refuses its viewers the satisfaction of knowing who did what to whom. There is no “the butler in the pantry with the candlestick” resolution, only an unconfirmed suggestion that there were multiple perpetrators acting as a group.
This confuses our very concepts of action and responsibility. We know that the wire caused the horse to fall, and that the rotten floor was responsible for the farmer’s wife’s death. But who, we ask, was responsible for the wire and for the floor? Haneke frustrates our desire to find a responsible human agent— a perpetrator, an author—to demonstrate that this search can blind us to the structural forces at work. A group of village children, led by the preacher’s daughter, have the uncanny habit of turning up at the scene of a crime to inquire after the victim’s well-being, and seem to be the most likely culprits. But the very fact that the chief suspects are children complicates things: if these children are responsible for the crimes, they are only replicating forms of punishment from their own households.
The law is more or less absent from The White Ribbon, with the exception of two investigators who come to question the townspeople after the Baron’s son has been badly beaten. Punishment is represented as a domestic and religious, rather than legal, matter. The comparative absence of the law presents the doctor, preacher, Baron and steward as judges within their own families, meting out punishments and rewards (mostly punishments) to their children. The family is the training ground for moral instruction, and filial obedience is placed at a premium. This is especially the case in the preacher’s family: the film’s title refers to a scene in which the preacher’s eldest children, Klara and Martin, are punished for missing supper. When they eventually return home, they apologize, saying: “Forgive us, father.” They are whipped and made to wear white ribbons, symbols of the innocence of childhood, for the remainder of the year. The scene of their punishment is deliberate and calm: their mother slowly cuts pieces of white ribbon from her sewing basket in the attic, then Martin is sent to get the whip. He closes the door behind him as he goes back into the kitchen, leaving us to hear the crack of the whip and the children’s whimpers.
The preacher carries out this punishment with the confidence of a man who believes his actions are sanctioned by God. His children, experiencing the tyranny of his whip, seem to take seriously the idea that God’s hand is behind it— all the while becoming somewhat tyrannical themselves. This would be little more than a comment on the harshness of Protestant child-rearing techniques were it not for the fact that these children are going to become adults on the eve of the Second World War. In light of this, the demand that they obey their father— who in the case of the preacher is also their confessor and ersatz god— takes on eerie political significance. In “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship” (1964), Hannah Arendt argues that the notion of political obedience obscures the actor’s support for the regime, and codes as passive and necessary what is actually active and elective. Obedience can adequately describe the relationship of children or slaves to parents or masters, but not of political subjects to the state. Membership in the state is based on consent, and one’s agreement to carry out its orders expresses not obedience, but support.
By focusing on characters who are children in 1914, and representing the domestic life of a village, The White Ribbon offers a new kind of prehistory of the Second World War. It begins early, even before the Treaty of Versailles—which created the conditions that most historians think led to Hitler’s rise to power— and it places the family at the center of things, as the locus of moral training. Much as this makes it sound like the film traffics in a familiar brand of social conservatism, which attributes societal wrongs to troubled families, The White Ribbon offers no causal history. On a localized level, we often know what causes what: we see the farmer’s son, furious about his mother’s death, hacking at the Baron’s cabbages; we see Klara, the preacher’s daughter, take the scissors from his drawer and remove his bird from its cage, later placing it on his desk, its head cut off and the scissors stuck in the torso to form a cross. But more generally, it is impossible to account for the disappearance of certain characters (the midwife, the doctor) or the cycles of violence that plague the village. Accident cannot explain everything, nor can revenge. Like the enigmatic mole in Kafka’s story, the agent or agents behind the violence in Eichwald are at the center of the tale while remaining indeterminate and unidentified. They are in the film’s blind spot.
This is trademark Haneke: his previous work Caché (2005), which concerns a couple who repeatedly get sent surveillance footage of themselves in their home, also creates an environment in which the arbitrariness and apparent sourcelessness of acts of violence frighten the characters as well as the viewer. The formal similarity between Caché’s treatment of surveillance and The White Ribbon’s depiction of viral-village-violence makes it easy to claim that Haneke’s aesthetic captures the unease of the modern, the widespread cultural nausea of life post-1900.
Haneke’s menacing pastoral shows how cruelty can be a customary feature of everyday life, and is not necessarily limited to egregious, orchestrated historical events. The suggestion is that morality cannot be taken for granted. Any community raised on commandments, religious or otherwise, can very quickly come to believe the nastiest sort of theodicy by attributing cruelties and injustices to God’s will. It is too easy to take what is customary or prescribed as right just because it is customary or prescribed. Arendt expresses this problem by noting that morals and table manners have a common root in the Latin word mores: the terrifying thing about the events of the Thirties and Forties, on this account, is that morals were revealed to be as easy to change as table manners. “How strange and how frightening it suddenly appeared,” she writes, “that the very terms we use to designate these things [morality and ethics] … should never have meant more than usages and habits.”
The subtitle of The White Ribbon, “A German Children’s Story,” refers not only to the film’s focus on children, but to its demonstration of how children acquire their customs and habits, especially by playing at being adults. There is no getting around social instruction and transmission; children are always going to learn from their parents. But in The White Ribbon, the transmission of mores takes on the force of Biblical inheritance. As a note pinned to one of the beaten children says, this is the work of a jealous God, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children into the third and fourth generation.”
Like Kafka’s parables, Haneke’s tale positions its characters as subject to brutal, inscrutable networks, then asks what agency they still have. Kafka’s representation of the individual’s paralysis often ends in death (as in The Trial), but in “The Village Schoolmaster” it concludes with the narrator finding it impossible to imagine ever showing his visitor— who is there about the mole— to the door. The uncomfortable proximity of the visitor, the sense that he might just stay forever, adds to the reader’s confusion about what, if anything, the mole stands for, and makes it impossible to extract a clear moral. The White Ribbon echoes Kafka’s refusal to offer resolution, to allay the individual’s confusion and discomfort in the face of larger structures of community and state. Both Kafka and Haneke thereby extend the sense of entrapment from the character to the reader or viewer.
Might the cycle of sadism be broken? Haneke thinks his film’s violence clears the way for individual responsibility. In a 2009 interview, he says: “The only acceptable form of rape is when you rape the spectator into autonomy, make the spectator aware of their role as a receptor, as a victim, so that they become autonomous or independent.” Haneke evidently conceives of his filmmaking as violence that empowers. This may be true. But the unacceptable form of rape is present in The White Ribbon as well: the doctor rapes his daughter, and when her much younger brother, unable to sleep, walks in on the scene, she tells him that her father is piercing her ears. Haneke’s idea of raping the spectator into autonomy trades on the representation of actual violence, and, in one instance, actual rape. If we take Haneke at his word, it is necessary to enter cycles of sadism to break them. But the stakes are high here: if Haneke’s project fails, there is nothing to distinguish the spectator’s discomfort from that of the children—which only causes them to do unto others what is done to them. Perhaps, then, the measure of Haneke’s success is the viewer’s revolt.