Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The sins of the fathers are revenged by their children




That staple of teenage English literature classes, William Golding's 'The Lord of the Flies' has taught us that children are not innocent (though Richard Hughes' 'A High Wind in Jamaica' already traveled this ground with greater subtlety), this reality is given new depth in Michael Haneke's film, 'The White Ribbon'.

It is set in a claustrophobic north German village in the year before the First World War. The village is plagued with a series of incidents that strike the note of revenge and whose perpetrators remain hidden until suddenly it appears to the schoolmaster, at least, that the fault lies with a group of children, taking vengeance for actual and presumed hurts - from the realities of abuse to the sibling rivalry of the appearance of another child.

The vengeance of children, it is suggested, emerges out of slights both real and imagined. It is this latter point that is parable for what will unfold in Germany after the actual defeat of war - a whole political deformation will emerge out of real failings and projected enemies.

But the slights are also real - the world described is one of extraordinary constraint: externally of social division, internally of personal repression.

There are striking set pieces - the wonderful confrontation between the Lutheran pastor and his son on the vexed question of his masturbation (the presumed result of which is depression, sallowness and death riddled with pustules)! One result of which is that the child is tied down at night, hands kept unfree!

But the children's vengeance is opportunistic - and not direct - another searching parable for what will come next. It often strikes at the vulnerable - the disabled son of a midwife whose own complicity is a failure to stop her lover's abuse of his daughter - in a strange magical sense that the world might be made good but a good itself that is in the grip of an unconscious wish fulfillment.

It is a beautifully shot film - in black and white - and the only characters who emerge virtuously are the narrator, the schoolmaster, whose reason (and decency) is a light that finally reveals what is unfolding (even as it cannot do anything to bring it to a righting conclusion) and his fiance, nanny at the manor, whose innocence is her protection.

As war comes, and change is promised, though the film suggests a change to be built on tragic foundations, I am reminded of how deeply the arrival of war was celebrated even amongst those who might have known better! You can imagine that if this stultifying world was in anyway authentic, such enthusiasm of escape is perfectly understandable.

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