Monday, 15 February 2010

First Impressions: The White Ribbon

by Paul Lay

Today sees the release on DVD of Michael Haneke’s masterly meditation on the German past, The White Ribbon (Artificial Eye, £15.99). The drama, filmed in suitably austere black and white, is set in a small village in northern Germany just before the outbreak of the First World War. The atmosphere is fearful and conspiratorial. Quietly chilling figures of authority such as the main landowner, the doctor and the pastor (a brilliant central performance by Burghart Klaussner) stir grievance and resentment among the villagers against a backdrop of ‘accidents’, abductions and abuse. As the village threatens to tear itself apart, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and its promise of war comes almost as a relief.

Many critics have seen The White Ribbon as a mediation on Nazism, pointing out, for example, the similarity of the white ribbon worn by the pastor’s children as a symbol of wrongdoing to the yellow stars worn to identify Jews during the Third Reich (or even, as a symbol of purity, the armbands worn by the Nazis themselves). Such allusions are inescapable. But I was reminded more of recent studies of the witch crazes that scarred early modern Germany, with their mixture of arbitrary power, personal fiefdoms and sexual suspicion. Which makes the beautifully observed and tenderly performed romance between the village schoolteacher (the narrator of the film) and a young local woman all the more powerful.

Ultimately, The White Ribbon, like life, resists simple interpretation. And that is what makes it essential viewing for historians, whether they are interested in German history or not. For, like all history, it is bafflingly complex and never entirely knowable. The White Ribbon sits alongside Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975) and Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) as one of the greatest films ever made on the subject of history. It is essential viewing.

For further information on the 'Power of Women' in Germany during the Renaissance, read She-Devils, Harlots and Harridans in Northern Renaissance Prints , in which Julia Nurse shows how the demonic power of women was an important theme in the popular print of Germany in the 16th century.

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