We are rotting from the inside. Let us not worry ourselves with foreigners or nemeses from afar; no, we must concentrate on the enemy within. Catch-22ingly, as soon as we work to free ourselves of the rot, we devote our livelihoods to usurping freedom and infecting every soul with the wine of suspicion. This intoxication only inflames the rot.
In 1999, I watched with my family the epic miniseries, Storm of the Century. The viewing sparked my early-teenage obsession with the works of Stephen King. The four hour production ravaged my storytelling intellect by giving me what I always wanted to see in a thriller; the victory of the enemy.
The plot revolved around a strangely powerful stranger that suddenly appears on a small Maine island amidst the worst storm in three generations. The island is isolated. Amongst this isolation, bad things start to happen. People die. Suicide grows rampant. It appears that this stranger is the culprit. At first, he has very little to say, but one succinct message:
Give me what I want, and I'll go away.
As the third act unfolds, we find the entire town locked up in city hall, each member participating in the election of the century. The stranger says he'll leave in peace if he is given what he requires. But his cost is high. It is no small thing to ask for.
Upon being asked we he chose this small town, the stranger gives a list of sins. He makes his case thorough for why the town deserves such special attention from a guy like him.
As I watched these proceedings, my eyes widened at this prospect. Are we, at our core, good or evil? What dwells in our most inward place?
Storm of the Century is not a fantastic story, because, though I was uncritical of it upon initial viewing, I've now come to realize that I never believed that the townspeople could be intrinsically malevolent. They could be quirky and smarky, but not evil. There's a huge divide there. Furthermore, the worst offenses took place years ago offscreen, leaving it easy to say that the criminals within the town have since repented and changed their hearts toward goodness.
Where Storm of the Century fell short, Michael Haneke's work, The White Ribbon burns with amoral ambiguity. A series of crimes lead to a whodunit of vileness. And as we gaze through the early 20th century village, we become instilled with the sense that the answer will not be found in one perverse character. The denouement will not reveal the sinister motives of a lone sadistic sadist. No, we are led to discover that these 'incidents' are birthed from a general, permeating evil. That is how it goes.
Perhaps it is our culture, our evolution, or our God-given spirit that causes us to find answers to every riddle. But what happens when you can't solve the riddle? Roger Ebert poetically summarizes the plot of The White Ribbon:
In this German town, there is a need to solve the puzzle. Random wicked acts create disorder and erode the people's faith that life makes sense. The suspicion that the known facts cannot be made to add up is as disturbing as if the earth gave way beneath our feet.
I think the riddle doesn't add up, not because there is no answer, but because there are too many answers.
We are shown the innards of several families in The White Ribbon. Each is poisoned. We suspect the evil intentions of children even as we observe the foul behavior of parents. The family unit is broken. I think that's where the key is.
In Storm of the Century we are told to conceive of the possibility that the small Maine town is downright putrid. We are given some petty evidences of such, but, and this is a big but, it appears that all the family units are loving and functionally trustworthy. So, if the smallest unit of community is stable, how could it be that when translated to the bigger community (the town as a whole), everyone is evil? Evil corrupts from the small to the big. I don't think it works the other way around.
The White Ribbon proposes the procedure as such: the family is broken, therefore, the community is doomed to be broken. Evil begets evil. An early scene shows a brutal whipping of two children at the hands of their father for the absence at the dinner table (why they were absent is never explained, and perhaps is a clue towards why the punishment was so harsh). No matter what the offense of the children is, the response is too much, too visceral. They will hate their father, and hate themselves for their actions. Another scene assures us of a sexual relationship between father and daughter.
What do we do with all these devious actions? We punish individuals. Punish, punish, punish, until purity is reached.
There are, of course, varying degrees of happy and unhappy family units in the world. But is there any that has perfect trust? There are always suspicions. And there is always some cause for suspicion, is there not? Examine your own family. You will find seeds of mistrust and deep-seated suspicions. It shouldn't be there, these are our most trustworthy friends, our closest allies in the world; our blood.
We carry this mistrust into the community, into the world. The suspicions spread. We don't understand it. It is a matter beyond our recognition. And we are a simple people, so we arrive at simple solutions. Punish, punish, punish, until purity is reached.
Both films share one allegorical truth. Storm of the Century repeatedly references the historical mystery of Roanoke, Virginia. Before the Constitution was written, before the pilgrims hit Plymouth Rock, a group came from England and landed in what is now Roanoke. They vanished. All that was found was a tree with a word carved into its flesh.
You tell me what it means.