Brad Pitt once stated that Inglourious Basterds was the final movie which needed to be made about Nazi Germany. I would have personally preferred if they’d decided to do so about one movie earlier, but nonetheless producers heeded the call that The Brad had issued and stopped the machinery. It’s not that the era suddenly lost its significance but when the most predictable choices for the antagonist of a film consist of “historical Nazi / ficticious Nazi / Nazi zombies”, directors might reconsider whether the right way is indeed the right way. Remembering the holocaust is a commendable goal, but constant visualisation of simplistic Hollywood themes seems to me like just another form of forgetting that there are actually more examples for a history of atrocities than the Third Reich.
I conclude while watching a film about the upbringing of the generation which would later become Nazis that it would have surprised me if I could do anything but resignedly glue my eyes shut at the sight of it. Michael Haneke’s Das weiße Band is that kind of film, but I haven’t. Before you judge me for being a coward, let me explain.
It’s 1913 in a secluded German village that is governed by a baron and primarily sustained by agriculture. The narrator, who turns out to be the village teacher , tells us of strange things that are happening to its people: The village doctor is injured when his horse trips over a trap wire, a farmer’s wife dies working in the sawmill, fire is set to a barn on the baron’s property. The puzzlement of the inhabitants about these deeds is plausible, as the village is in no way lacking discipline. Parents handle their children with towering authority and are easily angered by insubordination. When the Protestant pastor chides his children for not coming home on time, his voice is seeping with a power that we would rather expect from an inquisitor. Instead of giving them a beating right away, he announces that their flagellation will be performed the next evening, leaving them with a whole day of wretched anticipation. There is no soundtrack leading up to the beating itself, just as there is none throughout the rest of the film. When the pastor’s eldest son trudges to pick up the birch that would in a minute come down on his bare skin, the silence is so pervasive that I can hear the ticking of the wrist watch of the person next to me. We also don’t see this beating, or any other. The door is shut and cries of pain start emanating from the room while we remain outside, listening.
To express his disappointment with their undutiful behavior, the pastor then forces two of his children to wear white ribbons around their arms, as symbols of purity, until he is convinced that they are cleansed. These might as well be hinting at a similar badge that would soon be worn by millions of people in Germany. It also might not do that at all. Haneke incessantly plays with ambiguity and the plot line is permeated with dead ends. We soon come to suspect that the perpetrator of the mysterious events might be an eerie group of children. The village’s adults show a plain lack of those virtues that they demand from their offspring and in turn are punished with violent retaliation. We constantly see children observing, showing up at crime scenes, interested in the victims’ conditions, but their motives for some of the crimes remain doubtful. When the doctor’s disabled child is found in the forest with injuries to his eyes, did it fall victim to people of its own age who conducted an attack on someone helpless because their real tormentors seemed beyond reach? Or did the cruelty of the doctor towards his wife and her knowledge of him molesting their daughter cause her first to injure her own child and then swiftly leave town with it?
It’s violence that begets violence, the whole village is festering with it, while the faces behind it are fluid. A farmhand is seen destroying a patch of the baron’s cabbage because he reckons him responsible for his mother’s death. In the following season, the baron releases the whole family from his employment, ultimately causing the farmhand’s father to commit suicide. Yet the villagers aren’t inherently evil. The pastor, undoubtedly the most poignant example for relentless punishing, clearly loves his children. After his pet bird is killed, his son relinquishes his own bird to him as a replacement, piercing the pastor’s stern façade and eliciting a hoarse “Thank you”. At the end of the film, when he is faced with the teacher’s accusations against his own children, he fervently refuses to believe their involvement in the crimes.
It’s this ambiguity within the characters that makes the film so believable. We know that humans are able to maintain multiple character traits at once, even if they contradict each other. It’s what we can observe in our everyday life and the way this translates into the film pushes clichés aside. No character is demonized and at the same time everyone is responsible.
The announcement of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the impending war in Europe wash all of this away. Anonymous violence is taken to the next level and beyond the boundaries of the parish. During the last scene in the church, four men with flowers in their buttonholes, the first volunteers, seat themselves in the first row. The pastor walks along the aisle but the space behind the altar remains empty. Instead he takes his place on the pew, among all the other culprits, while above their heads the children’s choir chants with angelic voices.
Niklas was listening to the soundtrack of this film while writing this article.