Confronting Death in Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon"

The moment at which you recognize that your own death lies in wait somewhere within your body. — Ron Silliman, "You"

I'm interested in our first confrontations with death--usually when we are young and a relative or family friend dies--and how these confrontations affect our lives in profound ways. Take, for instance, a scene in Michael Haneke's masterful film, The White Ribbon, in which a little boy learns about death for the first time. He struggles to grasp the concept and asks his sister the same questions over and over. The long, repetitive style of the scene illustrates how incomprehensible death is, how we lack the tools to make sense of it.

The sister comforts the boy with his youth, insisting that death will happen at a later, unspecified date. She shows how death is part of the unknown; it is something that can be postponed but not prevented. She does not want her brother to think about death, but once we are introduced to the fact that we are going to die we cannot forget it no matter how much we would like to.

In another scene from The White Ribbon, a different boy stands in a room by a dead body whose face is shrouded. He lifts the shroud out of curiosity. Rarely can we look away from death even though it horrifies us.

The boy's reaction to the dead body is understated. What is he thinking? Is he frightened? We don't completely know and perhaps we project our own memories onto this scene and think about our first confrontation with a dead body; I know I certainly do. The boy is touching someone who cannot feel or breathe, a person who no longer exists. All that the boy is--all that the living are--is all that the dead body is not; it is just nothingness, a vacant skin. When you look at death, nothing looks back.