Twin Fascist Fables: The White Ribbon and The Childhood of a Leader
Two films, made seven years apart, have such obvious parallels that they can’t help but be compared, in spite of their style and approach being drastically different. They are Michael Haneke’s 2009 German language film, The White Ribbon; and the 2016 UK/France/Hungary collaboration The Childhood of a Leader, the first feature by novice director Brady Corbet. The two directors also wrote their own screenplays.
Both films deal with the rise of European fascism, but in the indirect form of a fable; Haneke’s fable realistic and rooted in history, Corbet’s largely symbolic and using a fictional composite of actual events. Nowhere in either film are fascism or the Nazi party discussed in any detail, or even directly referenced. These historical realities appear all but invisibly, in allegories or as part of the background, although their significance is clear. The stories are set well before fascism arose, in order to examine its precursors, one taking place shortly before the First World War, the other immediately after. Interestingly, both filmmakers have chosen children as central figures, although, like every other movie device in these films, the symbols are used in very different ways.
What is intriguing about these films is the way they provide insight into the development of fascism, without portraying or even discussing the subject. In each case, the further the focus turns from political realities, the more clearly it shows the roots of fascist thinking.
The White Ribbon
The White Ribbon is the greater critical success of the two, having received the Palme d’Or, César, and Golden Globe awards for best foreign film, the EFA for best film, screenwriter, and director, and countless other film festival and critics’ awards. It is all well deserved. Haneke follows the format of an enigmatic, unresolved mystery which he put to good use in earlier films, particularly his unique 2005 suspense film Caché.
Although Haneke has said that the film is about “the origins of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature,” he sets it in a context which, unlike The Childhood of a Leader, is not merely European or even universal, but specifically German, and a parable about Nazism rather than fascism in general. Filmed in German and released as Das Weisse Band, Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte, or The White Ribbon: A German Children’s Story, the film deals with a group of children who will become adults around the time of the rise of the Third Reich. This ‘children’s story’ seeks to discover what it was in German children’s background which may have caused them to support and assist the Nazi party when the time came – much the same questions, and conclusions, once offered by the late child psychologist Alice Miller, who drew a controversial connection between harsh child rearing methods and a tendency toward violence and the acceptance of tyranny.
Over scenes, beautifully filmed in black and white, of a small German town around 1912, a male narrator explains that he wishes to describe events which took place years earlier, when he was a young schoolteacher in the fictional town. He explains, “… I believe I must tell of the strange events that occurred in our village, because they may cast a new light on some of the goings-on in this country…”
Shortly after introducing the town and its notable inhabitants – the chief landowner known as The Baron and his family and servants, the town’s doctor, the pastor, the village midwife, the young schoolteacher whose memories make up the story – the first disturbing incident takes place. The doctor, returning from a call after dark, is injured when his horse trips over a wire deliberately strung between two trees. The matter is investigated, but none of the residents seem to have any idea who set the trap, or why, and it is left unsolved.
As the film follows the town’s day to day routine, a common theme emerges. Although most of the residents seem kind and well-intentioned, a strict hierarchy of authority exists, bolstered by stringently enforced rules of behaviour, some innocuous, others repressive. The Baron controls much of the local workforce; the doctor enlists the midwife as his all-purpose personal servant; parents have absolute authority over their children, authority which may sometimes be abused. The town’s minister demands not merely good behaviour, but near perfection from his own children, and punishes them when they fall short. The ‘white ribbon’ of the title is an item the minister forces his children to wear after misbehaving, as a symbol of the purity he almost obsessively values. There is, at first, resentment but few signs of open rebellion against this system, but then the trip wire incident is compounded by a series of other acts of vandalism or cruelty, mostly by unknown persons, gradually escalating in severity. A barn is set on fire; a disabled child is brutalised. A vague, indistinct connection can be seen between these mysterious actions, and the misuse of authority established in the town’s social structure.The film includes a number of minor subplots, some relevant to the central theme, others less so. The narrator, portrayed here as the young schoolteacher he was at the time, engages in an awkward courtship with the Baron’s shy, seventeen-year-old nanny, and their relationship serves as a bright spot of wholesome normality, in sharp contrast to the family conflicts and the baffling string of minor atrocities.
The identity of the culprits remains, in most cases, a mystery. However, it becomes clear that the town’s children are either involved, or know what is going on. Their behaviour becomes odd, and many of them seem frightened or disturbed. Complicit or not, each of them is being affected by the shocking crimes. Several of the children are seen to have some incentive to lash out. The children give nothing away, however, even as the strange pranks become increasingly violent, and suspicion of them is quickly dismissed.
While The White Ribbon is a mystery of sorts, the story is not a ‘whodunit.’ Although the audience is shown the person responsible for one or two of the hostile acts, that information does not clear up the matter significantly. The real question being asked is how the horrifying developments in Germany twenty years later could find their roots in the commonplace daily life of a typical German town. Haneke’s eerily tranquil black and white images, the simple realism of his almost documentary-like footage, and his unique ability to highlight the mysterious side of ordinary life, makes that question frightening and compelling.
The Childhood of a Leader
Once again, children, or rather one child, is the chosen metaphor, in what has been called a fascism ‘origin myth,’ loosely based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story of the same name. The film’s central character is a single child, a young boy named Prescott (Tom Sweet), who finds himself in the middle of post-WWI negotiations, and reacting to them without fully understanding what is taking place. The child is the son of an American diplomat assisting President Wilson at the Paris Peace Talks. He is isolated in a grand house outside Paris, with only his French mother and household servants for company. As director Brady Corbet made clear, the child is not meant to be a young Hitler, and nothing points to his representing any real-life political figure, but the historical events and political details in his family’s background are interestingly specific.
The boy gives an appearance of sweetness and innocence, and is even dressed girlishly by his mother in long hair and ruffles. He is lonely and isolated, however, and soon begins to show signs of resentment and petulance, and to act out in what the film’s chapter titles refer to as tantrums. The boy’s gradually escalating anger and misbehaviour make up the basic plot of the film, in the background of which momentous political decisions are being made. It becomes clear that the boy is taking in the information, atmosphere, and attitude toward power related to his father’s work on the Treaty of Versailles.
The actual storyline is almost incidental to the film, which relies on suggestive imagery and mood to make its point. This approach is established at the outset, when the opening chapter of the film begins under the title ‘Overture.’ The opening credits and first scenes, including bits of old footage from the First World War and the peace talks that followed, are shown over overtly ominous classical music. The increasingly dark, even alarming tone of the music is in contrast to the first scene, an anti-climactic shot of a young child. The boy is reading lines from Scripture for the parish Christmas play he is to appear in, the passages significantly referring to the birth of a child who will later have great impact on the world.
Following the film’s chapter title, The First Tantrum, we see the boy on the night of the Christmas pageant rehearsal, throwing rocks at the adults leaving the church. He tries to run away, and is brought home by a villager. The child remains defiant and refuses to apologise, but his motivation for the act remains unclear. The only explanation the boy offers is a nightmare he had, which the viewer sees as a disjointed series of images that become significant much later.
The chapter titled The Second Tantrum is introduced by a brief shot of snakes in the garden of the child’s Paris home, after which the boy becomes even more unruly, although in a disturbingly deliberate manner, and is punished severely by his father. Domestic power struggles intensify, with the boy at the centre of the conflicts. The Third Tantrum has the boy misbehave during a dinner party, in a way that seems at once to resemble a typical childish outburst, and a strangely adult expression of dissent.
It is always clear that there is more going on than the development of misbehaviour in a child. In each of these chapters, the boy’s strange outbursts and actions are accompanied by a musical soundtrack which, like the overture, is extremely, almost ostentatiously ominous and alarming, like the soundtrack from a horror film. The contrast between music suitable for a mass murder, and the scenes of a comfortable childhood in the French countryside, sends a clear message that there is a darker meaning behind what we see. The meaning itself is suggested by the frequent intrusions of the work of the boy’s father, who is involved in increasingly complicated negotiations, some of which seem to be highly secret and, by implication, subverting the supposed purpose of the Peace Talks.
The story culminates in a brief final chapter, taking place years later, and designated A New Era. We see dignitaries in an imposing structure, which we recognise from the boy’s earlier nightmare. They seem to be putting the finishing touches on documents, but speak too softly to be clearly understood. The camera pans outside, where an enormous crowd is waiting for some event outside the building. From the carefully designed images, signs, and banners, we are able to recognise the setting as a public political rally; none of the flags or emblems are taken from actual fascist movements, but the filmmakers cleverly capture the essence of them all, along with a distinct touch of Stalinism, in their invented scenario. As the leader of the fictional movement arrives and is greeted by a cheering crowd, the music swells from alarming to frantic, and the camerawork becomes chaotic, leading to an abrupt conclusion.
Much of the credit for this unusual film goes to co-writers Brady Corbet and Mona Fastvold, for a challenging script which manages to tell a story that is almost entirely symbolic, without becoming hopelessly cryptic. Corbet’s direction is also adept (most of the film’s award nominations were for direction), rarely allowing the action to drag and getting the most from the very competent cast. Child actor Tom Sweet was remarkable in the demanding central role. But in a film which depends so heavily upon image and style to tell its story, particular recognition has to be given to set designer Panni Lutter, and veteran British cinematographer Lol Crawley, who gave the film the distinctive look it required.
The Childhood of a Leader manages to capture the subtle, seemingly insignificant early stages of incipient fascism, and provide some insight into its sources, in a way that is apolitical and indirect, yet appropriately terrifying. Its distinctly peculiar approach takes some getting used to, but in the end it works.
For further viewing:
Keeper of the Flame, a 1942 drama by prolific Hollywood director George Cukor, is a film which owes much of its success to the casting of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in the lead roles.
The two stars, and Cukor, were drawn to the message, a warning of the ease with which fascism could find popular support in the US, given the right political circumstances and the right leader.
The film tells the story of a recently deceased national hero, and a newspaper reporter who delves into the man’s background. It is a second-rate melodrama which shoehorns in the anti-fascism message in the last ten minutes, but stands out as one of very few American films which dealt with the issue.