This is a dour image from 1:00:00 into Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning period piece The White Ribbon (2009). Conveniently for me, it’s also near-identical to the film’s poster, and therefore pretty emblematic for the whole movie. This is Martin, one of the disturbed children living in Eichwald, Germany just before World War I. Eichwald has been the site of a series of mysterious, violent attacks in the style of Bergman’s The Passion of Anna (1969), and Martin – along with his sister Klara – is somehow connected to this intangible evil.
He’s also the son of a strict pastor, one of the town’s guiding authorities. At this point in the film, his father is giving him a stern (and emotionally abusive) lecture about the dangers of self-abuse, bullying his son into a tearful confession despite never raising his voice. The scene is a microcosmic demonstration of Haneke’s grand thesis throughout the film: that the atrocities of the twentieth century are rooted in the sins of the fathers – i.e., the psychological damage that children suffer at the hands of their hypocritical, puritanical parents, and the irrational, destructive behavior patterns in which that damage manifests itself. Think of The White Ribbon as an austere, postmodern Rebel Without a Cause.
It’s also one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen in theaters. Christian Berger, the DP, shoots it in such pristine black and white that it feels as if the screen is about to ice over. Here, the photography complements the rigidity of life in Eichwald, as each character is bound by a set of painful social and religious strictures; in Martin’s case, they’re symbolized by the titular white ribbon tied to his arm, which his father put there as a reminder of purity. Under the pastor’s iron fist, personal freedom something foul which must be hidden behind locked doors and under bedsheets.
The scene takes place in the father’s den, which is neatly decorated with all the trappings of middle-class propriety: a bookshelf, a little bureau, a cross on the wall (and, behind the camera, a desk and birdcage). As Martin stands there stiffly, he’s circumscribed by these visual tokens of patriarchal authority, being simultaneously tormented and indoctrinated. His face sours into a guilt-riddled scowl and he averts his eyes from the camera’s gaze, even as his father opines that a child guilty of chronic masturbation had “avoided looking his parents in the eye.”
Leonard Proxauf, then only 14, plays Martin as a sad-eyed, fearful child with a not-quite-concealed capacity for evil, emotionally torn apart by his father’s impossibly demanding brand of anti-sex Christianity. Haneke never draws too straight of a line between these teachings and the frightening bursts that punctuate the film’s gloom, but it’s clear that the pastor’s lessons of self-hatred and self-esteem-destroying proclamations are important factors in the evil that engulfs the town. The moral poison surrounding the children of Eichwald is ultimately untraceable, but its seeds are everywhere. When they engage in unpredictable spurts of violence, it’s reminiscent of that classic anti-drug PSA: “I learned it by watching you.“