The White Ribbon (2009)

Published: Apr 5, 2012 |Updated: Sep 11, 2023


This is less a standard movie review and more of a mini-essay on the theme of shame that is central to the film.

Strange events happen in a small village in the north of Germany during the years just before World War I, which seem to be ritual punishment. The abused and suppressed children of the villagers seem to be at the heart of this mystery.

Genre Drama
Production year 2009
Director Michael Haneke
Male actors Christian Friedel

The White Ribbon

Shame – the bane of civilization

If you haven’t seen Michael Haneke’s THE WHITE RIBBON you should. It’s amazing. I’ve never before seen a film so effectively X-ray an entire culture thoroughly permeated and debased by the toxic effects of shame.

The story concerns a small German village in the year 1913. A number of strange things are happening and no one can pinpoint why or who the culprits are. Children are beaten and abused, someone strings a concealed wire in front of a Doctor’s horse, causing him serious injury, a barn is burned. Though the film never makes explicit who committed these crimes the implications for the future are clear: These are the seeds of activities that in 20 years time will create a society run by Nazis.

The internet dictionary tells us that shame is “the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.” I tend to think of shame as a personal feeling of inadequacy based on perceptions of wrong-doing. Shame’s universally key net product is a negative self-image. “Because of x, I am a bad person.” This is what distinguishes it from guilt. Guilt says I have done a bad thing. Shame says I did a bad thing therefore I am a bad person. Not hard to see which is worse.

Shame is the one basic emotion which distinguishes us from other animals. Unlike joy, sadness, fear, and anger which we share with all animals, shame is a unique construction of human beings. If you think about animals, well, they have no shame. Perhaps you can teach them shame, just as it is taught humans, but I think even that’s debatable.

Who’s to say that your dog whimpers and cowers “in shame” after he’s been punished for sniffing your girlfriend’s crotch? More likely he’s just sad and afraid because you’re mad at him. We may say to him “bad dog!” but it’s doubtful that the poor creature actually thinks “I am a bad dog. I should be ashamed.”

Most psychologists distinguish between “toxic shame” and “healthy shame.” I reject this notion and find all shaming energies abhorrent. Perhaps those same psychologists would agree with social theorists who argue that shame is a key building block of civilization. That without shame we’d all become debauched nihilists, solely pursuing our own pleasures. That without “healthy shame” we’d lie, cheat, steal, and worse. That without the negative motivation of “I better not do this, someone might find out” we’d abandon our consciences altogether.

I find this view of human nature cynical. I believe it’s possible for human beings to be motivated positively, altruistically, not through fear of being shamed but through our deepest natural desire to see ourselves and others happy. I believe our happiness can be found awakening to the fact that we’re all interconnected, that everything changes and passes away, that my happiness lies in helping others become happy, and that sympathetic joy – wishing for and doing well by others – may in fact be our deepest birthright.

Buddhism insists that these things are so. But more important than Buddhism’s insistence is the Buddha’s personal invitation to – as my Zen teacher put it – “sit down and shut up,” ie., meditate and experience these truths and joys directly for yourself. If you practice meditation on a retreat, for a long enough time with enough diligence, you will simply experience these things as indisputable facts. I personally guarantee it.

I would argue that shame is the greatest force of disequilibrium in any society. That it actually fosters contempt for self and others so toxic that it ultimately contributes to all forms of conflict and violence, including war. Michael Haneke might well agree.

To understand how social rituals of debasement and humiliation work, there’s no better filmic study than THE WHITE RIBBON. People humiliating and shaming one another is the villagers’ primary means of interaction. Husbands humiliate wives and mistresses, the aristocracy humiliates the professional class and the peasantry, and most relentlessly, almost all adults, regardless of gender or class, humiliate the children.

The worst offenders by far are the men, the fathers, who humiliate their sons and daughters with clinical precision and thoroughness. The composite portrait on offer is a society soaked to its deepest core, through every social relationship, every human interaction, with fear and loathing resulting from shame. It is the fundamental wellspring of social control determining almost every single character’s decisive behaviors.

Some critics have written about the film as if it’s an open-ended thriller. It’s true that the film itself keeps asking “who did it?” and never provides a definitive answer. But it’s nonsense to say the film leaves a complete cipher as its outcome. Though it never announces who the culprits are, the film makes very clear exactly who it implicates in the crimes. On finishing, my wife and I felt with absolute certainty that we understood who was responsible.

The DNA encoding of shame insists on its never coming forward, never being outed, much less outing itself. Shame thrives on darkness and staying hidden. It cannot continue to exist with its same quotient of toxic potency once it is made public. Exposed to the light of day shame loses its hold. Its power cannot stand. Lies and subterfuge diminish and begin to fall away. When shame is not absorbed and internalized by its intended victims it cannot be maintained as a form of social control.

So the film’s structure replicates the way shame works in society. No one knows “who did it” because too many forces are at play repressing and hiding the truth. Those who may know won’t come forward because the exposed truth will be shameful for them too. Due to their own fear of humiliation by association, “good people” become complicit in repressing the truth. This is exactly how a whole society can be taught to obey – to deny what is actually true and live in fear of being shamed by outing that truth.

If you’re prone to thinking, “Well, it’s just those Germans, they have an authority problem,” think again. One of the great core issues for the “men’s work” I’ve been doing in the U.S. for 15 years is shame. I’ve encountered man after man who battles with low self-esteem, with not being good enough. Many, many good men carry absolute self-hatred. We are not born this way; these are learned self-judgments. This is internalized shame.

But shame-based upbringing seems to be more of Western cultural phenomenon. I’m not sure that it’s nearly as pervasive in Africa and Asia. I was told that on one of his first visits to the U.S. the Dalai Lama was asked a question about dealing with self-hatred. He was stunned. He had simply never heard of the concept before; it was so far outside the culture of Tibetans. It was unimaginable that someone could consider him/herself “unworthy” to be a human being. He immediately walked around the room asking every person there “Have you experienced this?” Everyone nodded yes – all of them Westerners.

So how do we unlearn cultural lessons as pernicious as shame? We start by not taking on others’ shaming energy when served to us. I recall screening my short films at MOMA in New York in the late 80s. A man in the audience pointed out to me that I had mispronounced “amalgam.” Fine.

There are many words we learn from the written page but don’t learn how to properly pronounce. That was one of many for me. But when he persisted to hold forth on how this “flaw” diminished who I was as a filmmaker I politely but firmly cut him off and turned to other audience questions. I was certainly not about to let this man hijack the Q&A. More importantly, I was not going to allow him to publicly shame me.

In fact, many times I’ve asked people directly “are you trying to shame me?” The question usually surprises them. I’ve never heard a single person answer “yes, of course!” Most people aren’t remotely aware of it themselves. It’s simply the cultural practice they’ve grown up in and know. But the primary value in asking the question comes in interrupting the flow of their energy – their judgments, their verbal assault, their character assassination. It also helps to bring their own awareness to what it is they may be doing unconsciously.

You can spot this energy most clearly when people transition from talking about a mistake you made to what this mistake says about you as a person, about who you “are.” We commonly acknowledge homilies like “We all make mistakes,” and “Nobody’s perfect.” But in practice we unconsciously expect perfection from ourselves and others. And when we and they don’t live up to those expectations look out! Shaming energy is often coming right behind.

Once we’re attuned to it as conscious adults it’s relatively easy to deflect it, to not take it on. But what about children? Unfortunately, for them it’s not so easy. In fact, if the shame comes from their parents I think it’s almost impossible for children not to be harmed. So much of who they are becoming is defined by all the messages they receive from their parents – parents whom they love and adore.

A child’s greatest want is to be loved and cherished by his/her parents. But tell a child “you’re a bad boy” often enough and he will believe it. Tell another “you’re a stupid girl” and she will believe it. Worse, they will “know it to be true.”

It’s absolutely our job as adults to let children know when they’ve made bad decisions, when actions they’ve taken are wrong. It’s how we teach them to sharpen their own judgment skills and their overall awareness. But we should never want them to deduce from single and, yes, even multiple bad decisions that they are bad people, somehow defective human beings. We should never shame them.

Perhaps the greatest challenge before all of us adults is to heal our own inner “children” – the shamed ones that still live inside each of us. If we can do that we will not only break the chain of shame passed from generation to generation, we will serve as models to others, especially present-day children, of life as it can and should be lived without shame. If we can do that we fundamentally alter the way society is lived at its roots.

If we don’t, if we continue to shame ourselves and our children, it’s bad enough that we’re perpetuating a psychological dynamic that will hamper all of us for life. We help form beings who doubt their greatest capacities, who question their greatest goodness, who consider themselves defective, even unsuitable for life itself. But when you multiply that dynamic by hundreds, thousands, millions, you create whole societies that come to “know” other individuals, other peoples, other cultures, other nations, as defective, as inherently bad, as unsuitable for life itself.

And that is the greatest shame of all.

»Return to user reviews

Discuss The White Ribbon below:

Malcare WordPress Security