Stillness in The White Ribbon

by / Filed under Thinking

Finally got round to watching The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band), a German film set in a North German village in the months before the First World War.

This is a subtle, elegiac film about innocence and the terrible ways in which adults can treat children: all the adults, with the exception of the narrator and his love, abuse children in one way or another – and the narrator’s ignorance of what is happening (and of what happened) is a form of complicity. The narrator is the village teacher.

In turn, the children will be in their 30s and 40s come the Second World War. The combination of cruelty, suppression and wilful ignorance contextualises the Nazis in a way I hadn’t considered before.

One extraordinary feature of the film is the way in which waiting – the moments between events – is portrayed. When the pastor is about to punish two of his children, we watch the boy take the cane into the pastor’s study – the camera is positioned at the end of the hallway, behind the boy and the door. The door closes and then, while the punishment is prepared, there is a completely still shot of the closed door and the hall. Nothing happens for twenty seconds.

The wait is breath taking. Everyday objects reassemble themselves into a picture of normality, and we’re invited to contemplate the surface of a deeply conventional world that hides such cruelty. This shot explains how whole societies can commit – and assimilate – the most terrible atrocities.