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Growing up in a traditional society

Growing up in a traditional society

When art meets science

Who: Harry Oosterhuis, historian at Arts and Social Sciences

Film: The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009)

Target group: students of Arts and Social Sciences

What does a traditional society look like and what does it mean to live in it? Historian Harry Oosterhuis, who gives a block on the transition from a traditional to a modern society, has noticed that students often find it difficult to imagine. “It was a collective and very hierarchical society. People depended on each other, were boxed into relationships that were based on dependency and power. The White Ribbon shows exactly how that was.”

The film is set in a German village just before the First World War. “This village is like a type of microcosm. There is an oppressing atmosphere; people have little contact with the outside world. The doctor, the pastor and the landowner are above the others: they are the elite. Men are above women, which is expressed in sexual violence and incest.” Even children do not escape the control. “These relationships are forced upon them. They are reared in an authoritarian fashion. Rituals of punishment play a large role in their lives, with a focus on their sense of guilt.”

This affects the children. “You see how they become vindictive, aggressive and frustrated. But when they protest, they also take it out on the weaker ones, for example by maltreating a handicapped child. In doing so, they actually affirm the system.” Haneke implicitly shows how future Nazis are cultivated. “These children are adults during the emergence of the Third Reich.”

According to Oosterhuis, The White Ribbon not only provides historical awareness, but also gives insight into the work of a historian. “As a historian, you always need to reconstruct events from the past on the basis of fragments. You weren’t there, you don’t know everything. You have to guess and interpret some things.” It is the same in The White Ribbon. “The film is very fragmentary. A number of short stories are strung together by the bigger story; the portrait of the traditional society. The village teacher narrates them together, but he is not an omniscient narrator. Sometimes he raises more questions than he answers. Not everything becomes clear; for example, who is responsible for a number of weird events? That is something that the viewer is expected to answer.”

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