The White Ribbon – A Review

The White Ribbon is Michael Haneke’s austere look at a German village on the eve of World War I. The austerity is not only in the composition, but the lives of the villagers, a place ruled by fear, strict obedience, piety and corruption. The village is a symbol of all that is to come in the twentieth century, a place where the inhabitants are the cowed participants of orders that lead them to their own destruction.

As the White Ribbon opens the village doctor is coming home from riding his horse and he suddenly felled by a thin wire that is strung across his path. It is a suspicious event because he has ridden that same path time daily. When it is investigated, the wires are suddenly missing. The accident is one of many mysterious events that occurs in the village and gives the movie a fearful sensibility.

While the mysterious events occur, the film examines the lives of the villagers. There is the baron, a man who thinks nothing of firing a family from his farm if one member is disobedient. In one particular example, the wife of a farm worker dies in an accident in the Barron’s mill. The oldest son of a family destroys the Barron’s cabbage patch as revenge and as punishment the father is let go. All this time the father, instead of blaming the Barron for not keeping his mill working, he accepts what comes to him as a matter of course.

The village minister is the embodiment of austerity and discipline whose sense of righteousness is unshakable. He believes in tying white ribbons to his children to remind them of the goodness that they should strive for. His punishments are strict, a moral discipline he expects from everyone.

As the incidents continue, it becomes more and more obvious that the village is filled with secrets that show the powerful can get away with anything and the weak have no way to resist and go along with the whatever they are told. Only the school teacher and the Baroness can see these problems. The Baroness tries to leave the village, saying that she is tired of the brutality that is everywhere in the village. The school teacher, as an outsider, has not been worn down by fear and is willing, within the limits the German society allowed, to investigate and not let things lay as they are. But then the war comes. The last scene is of the village gathering in the church after Austria and German have declared war. It is a kind of righteous farewell to a world that is about to change.

The White Ribbon is a dark film with cruel mysteries that indite a certain way of life with its obedience and brutality. The movie is not a hopeful one, except, perhaps, in that the world of the village no longer exists. Haneke does not spare anyone from his indictment and White Ribbon is sure to leave one wondering how the people could endure such things, but just watch how the inhabitants keep their heads bowed in fear and you will know.

The Trailer:

Fabulation and Metahistory: W.G. Sebald and Recent German Holocaust Fiction

The UW is putting on a lecture about W.G. Sebald and contemporary German Holocaust literature. Having recently read Will Self’s (via Conversational Reading) article on the same subject, the lecture sounds interesting. Anyone interested in Sebald might consider checking it out.

Thursday • February 4 • 7pm
Katz Lectures in the Humanities presents: Richard Gray
“Fabulation and Metahistory: W.G. Sebald and Recent German Holocaust Fiction”
UW Kane Hall, Room 220, Seattle
Through an examination of W.G. Sebald, Professor Gray’s Katz lecture engages the conflicts between poetic technique and historical reliability that haunt contemporary German Holocaust literature. Richard Gray is Byron W. and Alice L. Lockwood Professor of the Humanities in the Department of Germanics at the University of Washington. He is and author and is editor of the Literary Conjugations series for the University of Washington Press.

The Baader Meinhof Complex – A Review

The Baader Meinhof Complex
The Baader Meinhof Complex

The Baader Meinhof Complex as the name implies is as much about the psychology of the Baader Meinhof Group as it is about the events. Not knowing much about the time it is hard to say how accurate the film is to the events. It does portray the unrest in West Germany of the late 60’s and early 70’s well and which is reflected in some of Fassbinder’s films, especially in The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum. The more interesting take of the film, though, is not the historic, but the motivations of the group. What was it that drove them and how did it manifest itself if their actions?

The film makers make clear that they see the group as well intentioned ideologues who could not control what they were: free loving anarchists from the 1960’s. The anarchism in their personal lives leads to mistakes in their actions. They are undisciplined terrorists and while they can plan out bank robberies well, they can’t plan out the next steps. And when they are arrested those who follow cannot plan any better. It doesn’t mean they are the Three Stooges of terrorism, because they managed hijackings and the German Embassy raid in Stockholm. It means they had no plan after the action. What happens when you reach your tactical objective?

The Badder Meinhof was good at achieving the tactical, but not the strategic and eventually the movement died out. However, it was not because the police were particularly cleaver. They caught group members, but were not able to stop new members from starting following after the group. Badder Meinhof dissipated as the times dissipated, as the politics that drove the original members changed.

It was also the seeming patience of the police that stopped the gang. The film makers show a scene where the head of the terrorism squad says, we must understand their motivations. It doesn’t make those motivations right, but it is the only way to defeat them. When he says it those in the meeting with him are resistant and it is an obvious criticism on the American War on Terror, which has posited a with us or against us mentality that has seemed to block analysis the movie posits. Yet the film also makes it clear that the German legal system was not able to handle the group adequately, since its processes were based on the idea that the accused will want to fight their charges. Instead the group makes fun of the case and spends time in their prison cell planning escapes.

Ultimately the questions The Baader Meinhof Complex grapple with is how do you stop terrorists? And how do you do it without destroying your society or creating more terrorists. The movie has no answers, but the skilled acting and film making make this and excellent film.

New German Literature in the TLS

The TLS recently had a review of some new German novels. All of these were published this year and, of course, are not available in English yet (I hope they are some day). Three of them deal with the GDR and the third, from Switzerland, deals with the Rawandan Genocide and Swiss complicity.

Three of the books sound very intriguing. ADAM UND EVELYN by Ingo Schulze, DER TURM by Uwe Tellkamp, and HUNDERT TAGE by Lukas Bärfuss.

Schulze’s novel is formally impressive. It consists almost entirely of snappy, naturalistic dialogues, portioned out in tasty little morsels in chapters of a few pages each: that the reader is able to deduce the plot events is in itself no small feat.

And the Bärfuss sounds tough but intriguing.

In a final childish burst, wanting to prove to Agathe that he isn’t like the other white people and won’t run away at the first sign of trouble, he hides in his garden as the last foreigners are evacuated. The horrors of the ensuing hundred days are born of order, not chaos: “I know now that perfect order rules the perfect hell”, David says. Bärfuss takes the reader step by step down the path to genocide. He emphasizes the role of Western – and particularly Swiss – aid in supplying the modern tools of organization and communication that made atrocities on such a scale possible: “we gave them the pencil with which they wrote the death lists . . . we laid the telephone lines over which they gave the murder commands . . . we built the streets upon which the murderers drove to their victims”.