Atheist Film: The White Ribbon

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 27, 2010 in Atheist Film & TV,Reviews

white ribbon

The White Ribbon, one of the best films of 2009, presents the religious oppression of the children of a pre-WWI German village as the root of fascism and terrorism.

The leader of the village is the Baron, who basically still rules as a feudal lord, employing half the village. He deprives people of their livelihood on a whim, in one case leading a former employee to kill himself in despair.

Below him is the Pastor. His moral decrees are as arbitrary as those of his God, and nearly as binding. He upholds the “children, kitchen, church” role for women, which would later become associated with Nazism.¬†And he is most ruthless with his own children. He ties his young son’s hands to the bed every night to prevent him from masturbating.

The final member of the terrible trio is the town doctor, who molests his daughter and treats his mistress like a piece of dirt.

It’s Old Lutheran authoritarianism at it’s finest. The children are oppressed ruthlessly, and they turn their inexpressible anguish and hatred on each other and back on the adults, by way of several mysterious violent crimes, the precise perpetrators of which are never identified. One of them involves a young retarded boy who is tortured and left tied to a tree with a note quoting the Bible about how punishment for the sins of a father will be visited upon his children.

The only light of sanity is the schoolteacher, who at the end of the movie begins to figure out who committed the violent crimes. He tells the Pastor first, but the Pastor threatens him, telling the schoolteacher to bury the truth to avoid bringing disgrace upon any families.

In addition to its anti-religious themes, the movie is a fictional illustration of the ‘Mayer thesis’ found in Arno Mayer’s The Persistance of the Old Regime,1 which contends that the Old Regime, in which an aristocracy owned most of the wealth and the middle and lower classes were politically divided, slowed down the progress of Europe and laid the foundations for both world wars.

And it’s here that we see the film’s message for contemporary America, where we have frequent eruptions of religious small-town idiocy, proudly flaunted by poster-girl Sarah Palin and her fellow birthers and teabaggers. More importantly, the persistence of the Old Regime in America has slowed its progress – at the cost of thousands or millions of human lives. The feudal lords of the USA continue to hoard most of the country’s wealth through military contracts and finance schemes while keeping the lower classes divided and oppressed. Even “progressive” Obama permits the suffering of millions to protect the “noble class” of oil sheikhs and wall street bankers. As a result, the USA has greater income inequality and greater social problems (violent crime, teen pregnancy, etc.) than any other advanced Western nation.

The White Ribbon is haunting, edgy, bold, riveting, and thoroughly anti-religious. It is also very well-shot and well-acted, like something Carl Dreyer would have directed if he had still been improving on his masterpieces these past four decades since his death.

The White Ribbon opened on December 30th in the U.S.

  1. Thanks to this review for making the connection. []

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

John D January 27, 2010 at 6:32 am

Interesting, I hadn’t heard about this one. Haneke is a great director (usually).

Have you checked out the film recommended by Wes Morriston on his webpage?

Watched it the other night. Powerful stuff.


bondwooley January 27, 2010 at 6:32 am

Angry and paranoid people on the right, like Palin and the teabaggers, could turn the rest of us angry and paranoid if they don’t burn out soon:



lukeprog January 27, 2010 at 7:20 am

John D,

Yeah, God on Trial was good.


Robert Gressis January 27, 2010 at 10:11 am

Very small point: I’m pretty sure Palin is not a birther. Maybe your point would be better put if you put “her birther fans” rather than “her fellow birthers”, as the latter phrase is ambiguous.


lukeprog January 27, 2010 at 11:45 am

I remember reading she endorsed the birthers.


Lorkas January 27, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Here’s an article about Palin’s views on the birther conspiracy:

Based on the comments in the article, it seems to me that she’s at least sympathetic to the birther conspiracy theory.


Anon April 15, 2010 at 9:18 pm

You say that children committed the crimes. That may or may not be true. Why did the doctor and his family disappear at the end of the film? Did they have something to do with the crimes? The very fact that the story is being remembered by the teacher many years later suggests that the teacher may be projecting his knowledge of the fascist future of those children back to when he knew them. They were fascists in the 30s, therefore they must have been the perpetrators in their youth.


lukeprog April 15, 2010 at 9:29 pm


An interesting theory.


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