Camellia Hancheva – The White Ribbon


When I first saw the film these were 147min of total absorption. I was staring at the screen like hypnotized. Immediately after the end I got this strong urge to go and hug my children as if to save them, to protect them from some phantom menace.

There was this thought: It’s too much!

Too much in terms of what though? In this film (unlike many others of Haneke’s films) there wasn’t a single moment that I’d rather like to avoid, to close my eyes or just stop the film. And still after it I felt pushed to the end of my capacity of holding my emotions, associations, fantasies.

And there was this total feeling of devastation much like being in a battlefield after the war.

The narrator’s voice on a black screen

Out of the darkness of the screen an old man’s voice is telling a story. A story of old days, memories of which are a little faded and unclear.

The film is obligingly providing markers of time, cultural context, religious background, visually unfamiliar faces and expressions as a number of possible emergency exits in case of identification. The difficulties and/or unwillingness to identify with any of the characters remained unchanged until the end of the film. But the inevitable trap – the promised knowledge – kept my attention. An old man’s voice saying: “But I think I must tell of the strange events that occurred in our village. They could, perhaps, clarify some things that happened in this country.

From the very beginning stimulation of intellectual involvement is provided. The curiosity of the audience, the wish to know, is provoked. And the riddle begins with constant diversity and contradiction of visual material and narrator’s voice – as though at least two view points are needed and yet absolutely insufficient. Like a child, doomed not to know the essence of life and death. The audience “receives either evasive answers or a rebuke for his curiosity, or is dismissed with the mythologically significant piece of information.” (Z. Freud, 1908, On The Sexual Theories of Children).

As in a strange funny game (not Fanny Games) what is told is not seen, what is seen is not named.

The frame or the (de)fence

The frame of the story is given by the narrating voice and a life-story of the teacher.

On the surface the teacher is acting or trying to act at the highest moral standards and with real care and respect for others – taking care of his pupils, being trusted by most of them, falling in love, giving shelter to Eva…But he is still distant a stranger and not a likeable person. His involvement in the villagers’ life has its culmination in the controversy with the Pastor. And then suddenly – a war, a marriage and “I never saw any of the villagers again.” The teacher changes his profession retiring in his father’s trade (tailor), preferring to cover, not to uncover people.

This is the outer side of the story – startling, like waking up in a middle of a dream or a nightmare, with so many things left unfinished, not clarified, unknown, and even leaving an unclear sense of guilt as though a crime was witnessed in silence.

The known

The plot is unfolding in the rhythm of workdays, fests and accidents of birth and death.   Structure of the community is clearly defined – The Barron who is not popular, but is respected, The Steward, The Priest whom we get to know mostly through his acts as a father, The Teacher, The Doctor, The Felders, and the families these people stay ahead of. The rules are strict and punishments seem to be inescapable, unless…One of the most severe “crimes” is the expression of emotions. There are exceptions that sooner or later are followed by exclusions.

The ultimate danger (in the form of drives or attachments) has to be tied up (to bed so “Sleep tight” becomes “Sleep tied up”), captured (like a wounded wild bird in a cage), and overcome (may be with a dose of self-hate).

Spontaneous acts of play or creativity are either envied (boys at the riverbank) or marked as monkeysh and intolerable.

And all the people were “united in the belief that life in (our) community was God’s will, and worth living.” –As stated by the teacher.

This statement is still evoking wrath in me! 

The known – psychoanalytical parallels

At the beginning of the 20-th century, when also the temporal marker of the film lies, a big change in science of the human nature was taking place. Z Freud (another Austrian, living in Vienna) was developing psychoanalysis. He made a revolutionary statement postulating the existence of the unconscious. It was later called by Freud himself the third blow to human narcissism – “The ego is not a master in its own house.” (Z. Freud, 1917, A Difficulty in The Path of Psychoanalysis)

The unknown

What’s happening in the houses?

Dangerous illusions of human nature – purity of children, immortality, taboo on incest, safety at home – are held up at the price of self-deceit, inner devastation and suicidal acts.

There are examples of darker parts of human nature in the frame, which we are invited to meet and explore to the extent of our fantasies and defense mechanisms.

Behind the closed doors we reveal sadistic means of education, banned sexuality, incest, envy and rivalry to the extreme of killing attempt, forbidden expression of emotions – anger, hate, love, and care.

What is to be done with the emotions? Instead of handling sexuality – it is banned and bind; aggression is bypassed. Taboos, which are crucial for the inner structure, are violated.

The magnitude of self-control and self-deceit about the vicissitudes of the intertwined drives is not even questioned.

The Teacher’s suspicions on some maters, shared with The Pastor give raise to an incomparable indignation. It appeared that the ultimate evil has been done. But who dares to question the child’s purity in both directions – life or death instincts. This could obviously be only a man who doesn’t belong to the community, bachelor and with no children of his own. And threats of disgrace followed.

The inappropriateness of that knowledge leads to the uncanny effects. The girl saw in a dream something that was to come true. The arguments of the teacher couldn’t fight it: “Something terrible will happen to him.”… “But sometimes my dreams do come true.”

And there was an incident, which we were prepared for, but not for its cruelty. The injury of the eyes of the retarded, numb child brings associations with the Oedipus myth. Oedipus who knew the answer of the sphinx’ riddle, but unknowingly had infringed the taboo that is structural for the inner and outer reality.

Melanie Klein, while discussing the Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict (1928) points out manifold connections of the early feeling of not knowing. “It unites with the feeling of being incapable, impotent, which soon results from the Oedipus situation.”  One of the fundaments of mental development could be traced to the early connection between the epistemophilic impulse and sadism. “So the epistemophilic instinct and the desire to take possession come quite early…connected with one another and at the same time – with the sense of guilt aroused by the incipient Oedipus conflict.”(M. Klein, 1928)

The film, is an invitation to our impulse to know (epistemological impulse), and also provides an unpleasant meeting with the primitive, extremely sadistic and vile parts (of us).

The uncanny

As defined by Freud (unheimlich) this concept is extremely difficult for translation. The meaning is developed in two directions – on the one hand un-homely; something not belonging to familiar, safe spheres and on the other – exactly the opposite “…for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression… Schelling defines the uncanny as something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.”

The scene behind the door opened by a small boy – the doctor and his daughter, the words and fake explanations – is one of the most unbearable ones, because it’s addressing simultaneously the primitive level concerning primal scene and incestuous ideations.

“An uncanny experience occurs either when infantile complexes which have been repressed, are once more revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs, which have been surmounted, seem once more to be confirmed.”

A revival of another primitive belief – in the super natural power of words – is achieved by the sequence of shots: The doctor expresses his wish by saying: “Why don’t you just die?” This is followed by the scene of a funeral.

The most impressive use of the uncanny effect in the plot is a twice repeated phrase, used by the doctor, and by Eva’s father: “The world won’t collapse.” and the war that subsequently followed.

The war

Inescapably the world collapsed – the war came as a proof, as a punishment, or may be as a warning, demonstrating the total demolition of the Law, the protective function and defenses of all kinds.

In the history of Europe there is a very interesting initiative dating back in post war years. The League of Nations and its International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation in Paris initiated an exchange of open letters among prominent scientists and intellectuals. A. Einstein chose to invite Z. Freud to a “frank exchange of views” on the problem: “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?”

Both letters are published in 1933, in German, French and English in Volume I, titled: “Warum Krieg?”, “Porquoi la guerre?”, “Why war?”

In Freud’s answer the following text can be found: “My belief is this… Of the psychological characteristics of civilization two appear to be the most important ones: a strengthening of the intellect, which is beginning to govern instinctual life, and an internalization of the aggressive impulses, with all of its consequent advantages and perils. Now war is in the crassest opposition to the psychical attitude, imposed on us by the process of civilization…”

From the distance of the decades the historical facts are as follows: on 1-st of Sept 1939 invasions start, which mark the beginning of WWII. A few days later, on Sept 23rd Z. Freud died.

And the questions are still the same: What do we believe in? And what about the innocence?

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