The White Ribbon

Psychological/emotional issues present unique challenges not only to the people who have them, but also for the artist who wants to explore how people develop these issues, their behavior, their beliefs, and how they address the issues, if they do.  Psychology is still a young science, still not accepted by everyone as a science, and there’s still even less understood about the mind than about the body.  The general public attaches a stigma to psychological issues, even fears the idea of insanity, and likes to push anything about psychology as far back in the darkest closet it can find.  Like death, psychological issues are not welcome topics of conversation.  We may be making some progress, but they’re still difficult issues to grasp and explore.  Artists, in my opinion, working in all media, need to have the courage to address psychological/emotional issues even more realistically than is done now, and with far less sensationalism.

The White Ribbon posterA possible example of this is the courageous 2009 Austrian/German film The White Ribbon, written and directed by Michael Haneke.  This film is shot in gorgeous black and white, giving it a documentary feel.  The story is far from black and white.  In a north German village in the year before WWI, a schoolteacher hears of mysterious violent incidents in the village and tries to make sense of them as well as figure out the culprit or culprits.  These violent acts appear to be intended as punishments.  It takes some time for the schoolteacher, and the viewer, to put together the clues and arrive at a conclusion — one that is never really completely stated but shown.  This is not a preachy, message movie.

Haneke, with this movie, is exploring the roots of violence in human beings.  What he shows would not be new to anyone who’d read the work of Swiss psychiatrist Alice Miller, who wrote about the roots of violence as well as the sexual abuse of children and its effects.  Dr. Miller showed that violence begets violence, i.e. if a parent uses physical violence on his child for punishment and discipline, that child learns that physical violence is used to punish, discipline and control others, and that child will grow up to be an adult who uses violence to feel powerful.

One thing commonly said by parents beating their children is “this hurts me more than it does you, and I’m doing this because I love you.”  The village minister in Haneke’s film says these very words before caning two of his children.  This pairs love with violence in a particularly unhealthy way, and is an example of psychological as well as physical violence.  This same minister punishes his children also be withholding food, sending them to bed without dinner.  The village doctor sexually degrades and abuses the midwife who cares for his children after his wife’s death.  We soon discover that he’s also sexually abusing his teen daughter.  The local Baron is not particularly well-liked because he treats his village workers so badly, then cannot understand why they are not happy for him when the harvest is good.  The way the lives of these three families play out form the structure of the film.

*******SPOILER ALERT!*******

What we discover, along with the schoolteacher who chooses to ignore it essentially, is that the village’s children are the culprits for the mysterious violent incidents.  They were doing to those they believed should be punished what they had experienced as punishment.  The adults are terribly concerned about who had perpetrated the “crimes” against those injured in the violent incidents but don’t think twice about assaulting their own children in the same way.

Haneke succeeds in showing the movie viewer through the pseudo-mystery the schoolteacher wants to solve the roots of violence in society.  He also tries to link it to the two World Wars.  He’s right if he’s saying with this movie that Germans need to first recognize what they have done in the past before they can make any changes for a better future.  I think that would be as true for America as any other country with a history of violence.

In Perceval’s Secret and the entire Perceval series of novels, I’m also exploring the roots of violence as well as the effects of untreated PTSD.  What I’ve learned over and over involves power, internal vs. external, and how powerlessness in childhood can lead to a violent adulthood, the need to wield power over others.  Dr. Miller’s work was not the only work in the area that I’ve read, but it is a good place to start for anyone interested in this topic.  I’d recommend her book For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and the Roots of Violence.  Alice Miller

I also recommend Haneke’s movie.  The meaning of the white ribbon ends up being totally ironic….


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