About But Not For Children: Latency in Narratives of De-formation, by Annie Pfeifer

Robert Musil’s 1906 novella The Confusions of the Young Törless and Michael Haneke’s 2009 film, The White Ribbon resonate uncannily with one another. Set on the eve of World War I, both narratives of formation or “bildung” are marked by brutality, as children formed by the harsh, repressive methods of disciplinary institutions or child-rearing carry out acts of inexplicable cruelty. These brutal acts puncture long periods of idleness and stasis in both narratives, raising the question: to what extent does cruelty become a proxy for action? To what extent does inaction become a form of complicity in a violent system? In Musil’s novella, Törless, a promising young pupil plunges into a world of brutality and sexual violence after befriending his classmates Reiting and Beineberg at an Austro-Hungarian military boarding school. The White Ribbon is set in a quiet Protestant German farming village in which a seemingly innocent clique of children—the offspring of the local doctor, pastor, baron, and steward—are suspected of torturing and brutally maiming certain members of their community.

Both the novella and film dramatize the way strict impositions of discipline coincide with an erosion of the traditional authority system in early twentieth century Europe. Within the authoritarian family structure of The White Ribbon and Törless’s regimented military boarding school emerge two would-be heroes: well-intentioned but ultimately ineffectual young teachers who are unable to act as real role models for their wayward pupils. Perhaps, in part, to fill this void, children act as adults, inaugurating a system of punishment and torture that mimics the forms of the adult world while perverting its basic rules. The children’s misapplication of these strict social codes reveals their brutal, unstable underpinnings, and uncovers the violent formation of communities more broadly. I will draw on Rene Girard’s concept of the scapegoat to illuminate the way communities are formed and reinvigorated through the exclusion of certain people or groups. Scapegoating or persecutions, argues Girard, are most pronounced during times of social instability and institutional collapse, as “rules disappear, hierarchical and functional differences erode” and authority is in crisis  (12).

Formation as Latency 

Both on a formal and narrative level, Törless and The White Ribbon are characterized by a diffuse feeling of latency. In After 1945: Latency as Origin of the Present, Hans Gumbrecht draws our attention to its latin etymology, “latens,” meaning “hidden.” According to Gumbrecht, the feeling or “stimmung” of latency is characterized by the certainty that something substantial is present but not knowing what or where it is. In The White Ribbon, the “hidden” dimension of latency is played out in the dark, barely-illuminated scenes in which the viewer is excluded from the main scenes of action. Characteristically, the film opens with a protracted black screen that only gradually fades as the voice-over narrator claims that his story might “shed light on some things that happened later in our country.” On a basic plot-level, however, we quickly find out that the mysterious events remain unresolved. Törless is also tormented by feelings of latency which he cannot fully comprehend but which are similarly manifested in images of darkness: “Everything that stirred within him remained in darkness, but he already felt a desire to stare into the pattern of that darkness, to which the others were oblivious” (53). The acts of cruelty which dominate both the novel and film become the primary means of teasing out these unresolvable latent feelings in which nothing really seems to happen and no clarity is ever achieved. Cruelty becomes the only viable antidote to inaction and stasis. Using their respective media, Törless and The White Ribbon interrogate the way acts of reading and viewing can become implicated in a violent system which we cannot change but must tacitly accept through our role as spectator.

Törless opens with the liminal space of a train station at the edge of the Austro-Hungarian empire: “A little station on the stretch leading towards Russia. Infinitely straight, four parallel iron tracks ran in both directions, between the yellow gravel of the wide track” (3). There is no sense of destination; from the beginning of the novella we are positioned at a way station on a seemingly endless track. Upon entering the boarding school, Törless is plagued by a profound malaise which sets in after the initial bouts of acute homesickness fade. He feels “impoverished and bare, like a tree experiencing its first winter after a fruitless blossoming” (6). Facing this persistent languor, “he was

very discontented now, and groped in vain for something he might use as a support” (7). It is precisely this idleness that makes him so susceptible to the machinations of his new friends, “the malicious Reiting” and Beineberg, the charismatic storyteller. The clique bonds over their boredom with school: “‘Perhaps you’re hoping for something, it’s very vague to you as well. This is what it’s like: waiting eternally for something and the only thing you know about it is that you’ve waited for it… That’s so boring’” (22). Malaise rather than malice is what prompts their initial acts of cruelty as they seek relief from their “profound internal boredom” (48).

The novella narrates the way the traditional family structure becomes supplanted by institutions of formation along with the concomitant erosion of traditional forms of discipline and behavior. Early on, the parting scene from his parents forms the necessary precondition for his entry into the institution of the boarding school which then takes over the process of “bildung” or formation (Campe 4). Just as in Great Expectations where Pip’s “bildung” originates in his encounter with an escaped convict, Musil’s novella forges a link between guilt, punishment, and formation when Törless’s classmate, Basini, commits a transgression that precipitates the onslaught of torture and sexual extortion. After catching Basini stealing money from his classmates, the three boys decide to postpone officially reporting the offense to the school. Instead, they take justice into their own hands to teach Basini a brutal lesson about school conduct. As Rüdiger Campe points out in his essay “Torture and the Narrative,” the language that the boys employ to discuss their course of action is an institutional, calculated language which might be found in a court of law: “They decided to keep Basini under surveillance for the time being, in order to become his guardians, and thus present him with an opportunity to extricate himself” (54). Concluding that “it was only because of special leniency that he was temporarily escaping the punishment of expulsion,” they begin to physically and sexually abuse him (52). In effect, they appropriate and pervert the legal, militaristic, and pedagogic language of their institution. Rather than bestial savagery, his torture is calculated cruelty designed to instruct and educate, part and parcel of the “various conditions” of Basini’s elaborate punishment. The boys become the teachers and vigilante disciplinarians who assume the

prerogative of instilling proper conduct and inflicting punishments in place of the waning power of the institution. Deeming the brutality they inflict to be a necessary “punishment” for a perceived offense, the boys circumvent the whole moral question of guilt. In effect, the notion of guilt or complicity becomes enshrined in a legal discourse that validates violence as a form of justice.

Put differently, the boys preemptively decide to direct Basini’s “bildung” and thus become directors of their own pernicious plot. This desire might partly explain the theatrical dimensions of their torture chamber; as the boys are role-playing, their acts of cruelty are routinely described as “performances,” while spectators watch with “tense excitement, as though they were in the theatre” (136). Törless and his friends are simultaneously precocious youths masquerading as adults as well as childish imbeciles acting out their violent fantasies without fully understanding the ramifications of their actions. Dramatizing the perversion of traditional processes of formation, the novella reveals that when the unformed protagonist of a Bildungsroman tries to take charge of the “bildung” of other characters, he begins to treat them like an authors or stage director, using them as means to realize his cruel, strange fantasies. The question remains: does Musil’s novella ultimately satirize the genre of “bildung” or formation as a pedagogical tool or does it serve as a cautionary tale about the departure from familial models of formation as the institution takes over?

Ultimately, Törless suggests that the pervasive crisis of authority has also spread to the Bildungsroman, which, like the seemingly infallible precepts of math and science, is based on certain assumptions, lacunae, and myths. What would happen to the Bildungsroman if the Enlightenment ideal of “self-realization” occurred not in the outer forms of life, but as Törless asserts, in the “dark soil of our innermost being” and hence fleeting, random, and largely inaccessible. Hearkening back to the etymological origins of latency as “hidden,” any realization of knowledge or truth in Törless is apprehended through some indirect means. The novella also questions whether the Bildungsroman is still an appropriate form for the fragmented and non-linear development of the modernist consciousness. Blending the Bildungsroman with autobiography, the works of Joyce, Mann, and Proust similarly tried to chronicle formation while seeking to jettison the linear narrative progression and teleological development of traditional novels like Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. 

The White Ribbon’s German title is followed by a subtitle, “Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte” or a “German children’s story,” gesturing towards its origins in both the Bildungsroman and fairy tales. Just as the Brothers Grimm were criticized for calling their tales “children’s stories” when the content was unsuitable for children, so is this story about, but not for, children. Like in Musil’s novella, the children suffer from boredom and languor, competing for scarce resources and facing uncertain futures. In keeping with the mood of latency, the film is dominated by scenes of children peering through various windows or doors to try to comprehend the world around them. Yet, like Törless, their violent, brutal actions call into question both the form and narrative of “bildung.” If children are prematurely masquerading as adults, does the narrative of formation become about adult deformation? If the content is unsuitable for its central characters, does Haneke’s film signal a crisis in children’s literature as well as in the authority of adults? Both the film and novella question whether formation is intrinsically rooted in violence. In Girard’s terms, to what extent are such violent processes of formation simply a reflection of the deeper violence underlying a community?

The film’s narrator begins by recalling several interwoven stories about various families whose children formed the coterie that was later accused of orchestrating the brutalities. Neither a detached nor impartial figure, the narrator himself plays a central role as the young schoolteacher of these children. The mysterious events begin when a freak accident injures the local doctor after his horse is tripped by an inconspicuous wire stretched between the trees. In the next scene, the midwife, who is allegedly the widowed doctor’s mistress, scolds a group of children for not greeting her, foregrounding the children’s systemic problem with authority. After his convalescence, the doctor returns home to his mistress and two children. In a disturbing moment that evokes the incestuous origins of many fairy tales, he turns to Anni, his daughter, asking, “How old are you now?” After she answers “fourteen,” he dismisses his mistress, as if in realization that Anni is now old enough for proper sexual relations. Later, the mistress tells the doctor that she has watched him grope Anni for years while feigning to conduct medical checkups. By juxtaposing these scenes without explanation or clarification, the film implies that the wire was set up by Anni and her friends as punishment for her father’s transgressions.

The seemingly ironclad grip of authority in this Protestant village is consistently undermined by the deviance of the children, exemplified by the farmer’s son who avenges his mother’s accidental death by destroying the crops of the powerful baron who employed her. Another narrative features a proper and authoritarian pastor, his dutiful wife, and their many children. After warning his prepubescent son Martin of the deadly consequences of masturbation, the pastor ties Martin’s hands to his bed at night to prevent any unseemly nocturnal behavior. Later, the pastor’s daughter Klara is shown making the preparations for the crucifixion of her father’s pet parakeet—a significant and grotesque perversion of the faith he forced on his children. In addition to the dead parakeet tied to the scissors, images of bondage reoccur throughout the film; Martin’s bound hands, the eponymous white ribbons attached to the children to remind them of their purity, the string tied between the trees to trip the doctor’s horse. In a perverse mimicry of such bondage, the sons of both the midwife and baron are later found naked, maimed, and bound to a tree. Later, rumors abound that Karli, the midwife’s son was illegitimately fathered by the doctor, suggesting that perhaps he is punished by the children for his parents’ infidelities. Just as in Törless, the children appropriate and pervert the methods of discipline bequeathed to them by their parents and institutions like the school and church. The sexual undertones of the children’s actions suggest that violence becomes a way of enacting the latent stirrings of sexuality that cannot be expressed in their repressive bourgeois upbringing. Puberty itself is depicted as a way station in which the secret adult world is perceived but unattainable.

Guilt contributes to the mood of latency in both the film and novel; diffuse and omnipresent, it has always existed but is never fully present or played out. Upon her husband’s behest, the pastor’s wife dutifully sews the eponymous white ribbons into the hair of her six unruly children because: “White, as you all know, is the color of innocence and purity” [“Weiß, wie ihr alle wisst, ist die Farbe der Unschuld und Reinheit”]. This naive gesture symbolizes the Protestant myth Haneke tries to dismantle: the stark dichotomy between good and evil, “schuld” and “unschuld.” In German, the word “innocence” or “unschuld” is a direct negation of “schuld” while in English, the two words are etymologically distinct. “Guilt” derives from Old English while “innocent” has Middle English Latin roots. It is as if, on an etymological level, the German word itself is innocent enough to believe that guilt can be completely negated. Yet, as Haneke maintained in an interview following the release of the film, “I don’t believe that children are innocent. Children aren’t innocent, they’re naive and take things as they’re told. When you take something literally, it can be dangerous.” In the film there is no such thing as a priori “un-schuld” which precedes guilt, simply a naïvité or the lack of knowledge. Unlike the prototypical nineteenth century Bildungsroman, there is no moment dramatizing the loss of innocence simply because there is no innocence which precedes guilt. “Bildung” or formation, it seems, is not losing “un-schuld” but the very process of understanding and narrating the guilt that has always already been present or what Haneke deems is one’s own role in the “schuldfrage” or guilt question.

Contributing to this pervasive mood of latency, the dark, barely-illuminated scenes of The White Ribbon reflect the narrator’s lack of any real understanding or clarity. Although he claims that the strange confluence of accidents in the village may “shed light” on German history, the narrator’s doubt about the authenticity of his own story undermines any authoritative conclusions and presents a counter-narrative to the authoritarian position of the pastor and other adults. The teacher becomes decidedly unpedantic. At the end of the film, when he dares to accuse the children of the atrocities, the pastor threatens him with prison for daring to question the authority of respectable families. The paradox is clear: irreverence is severely punished but systemic guilt or complicity in brutality is overlooked. Unable to perceive nuance in his draconian distinction between good and evil, the pastor fails to confront the real source of brutality: his own children and their misapplication of his teachings. The educator must be complicit with the cover-up if he wishes to continue educating and narrating. This complicity has larger implications for the film and narrative of “bildung,” questioning the possibility for anyone to assume a position of impartiality or innocence in a corrupt system.

The Scapegoat’s Sacrifice 

In Törless, the boys’ self-appointed roles as both executioners and theatre directors transform the body of their classmate into an erotic, brutalized object of experimentation. In part, Basini is victimized because of his perceived “soft” and effeminate weakness relative to the “homeric” masculinity of Beineberg and Reiting (27). Beineberg states: “I don’t think Basini matters one bit… I can’t imagine such a person having any significance in the wonderful mechanism of the world… that is even he must mean something, but only something vague, like a worm or stone in our path, which we don’t know whether to step on or kick aside” (61). His statement eerily anticipates the rationalization of Nazi genocides in which various groups were deemed weak, unfit, and thus necessary for removal from society. As Girard argues in Violence and the Sacred, the sacrifice of a scapegoat serves to “restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the social fabric and ultimately protect the community from its own violence by allowing a group to channel off all the latent dissensions, rivalries, and jealousies” that might otherwise consume it (8). Basini becomes the scapegoat for the vengeful desires and machinations of Törless and his clique, whose friendship is solidified by his exclusion and torture. It is precisely the scapegoat that externalizes all the latent, diffuse violence into one culminating moment of cathartic violence which allows the community to renew itself.

Paradoxically, the opaque, diffuse guilt in Haneke’s film makes it difficult but all the more necessary to locate a single culprit. As the strange events continue to unfold, the baron publicly addresses the community, warning the transgressors and instilling a climate of fear as accusations are traded between villagers. After being singled out in the speech, the family of the widowed farmer—whose son destroyed the baron’s crops to avenge his mother’s death—loses their employment on the baron’s land and begins to starve. One morning, following his release from prison, the son finds his father’s body hanging in the barn. The farmer is transformed into a scapegoat for the community as he becomes the medium through which the suspicions and anxieties of the villagers are channeled. It is precisely through the scapegoat that collective guilt is assuaged, and his punishment restores the illusion of social order and peace. Moreover, it is the diffusiveness of guilt shared among a group of like-minded, equally complicit people—that makes the sacrifice easier to withstand and justify. As Girard writes, the victim is “a substitute for all members of the community, offered up by the members themselves” (8). The scapegoating process is then mimicked by the children, who viciously attack and nearly blind Karli, the midwife’s mentally disabled son. Scapegoating can also be seen as a response to an overcrowded community in which members feel uncertain about their roles and future prospects. Indeed, the village seems to be overrun by bands of unruly children whose large families have limited abilities to feed and care for them. Most notably, the steward’s sons are upset by the birth of their infant brother and subsequently try to kill him by placing him near an open window.

Given the political subtext of the film, it is hard not to interpret the scapegoating as an omen for the treatment of Jews and other minorities during the Third Reich. Both the film and novella have been used to help explain the rise of Fascism and authoritarianism. [1] In spite of Haneke’s admonition that his film must not be reduced to an allegory about German Fascism, he states that he sought to “depict the conditions that have to be in place for people to be receptive to ideology” (Klawans 2009). Perhaps not coincidentally, Törless, Reiting, Beineberg, and the children of The White Ribbon would have been adults when Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany in 1933. The hypermasculine, “Homeric” athleticism of Reiting and Beineberg anticipates the fascist preoccupation with physical prowess. Resonating with the groupthink of mass movements, the children of The White Ribbon have absolute loyalty to their clique, refusing to divulge any information to outsiders. But the most blatant harbinger of Fascism is Törless’s pseudo-scientific examinations of Basini’s sacrificed body which foreshadow the extensive scientific experiments Nazis conducted on their victims.

Even as viewers and readers, we are complicit in these violent plots which we cannot change but must tacitly accept through our position as spectators. As Campe suggests in his essay, at first, the more apprehensive Törless seems to be “a spectator of the pleasures and experiments in cruelty” (22). But through his interrogations of Basini, which torment him more than the raping and brutality of the others by forcing him to describe his torture, Törless becomes an agent of torture. In one particular scene, he makes Basini relive his experiences in an especially vivid way: “‘Yes, I’m tormenting you. But that’s not important for me; I just want to know one thing: if I push all that into you like knives, what is inside you? What is happening inside you? Does something explode in you? Tell me’” (49). Just as the narrator of The White Ribbon is entangled in the plot through his role as schoolteacher, Törless overturns any notion of an innocent bystander or spectator who escapes guilt through detached observation. In his essay, Campe refers to Friedrich Blankenburg’s 1774 Essay on the Novel, which posits that interrogation or “verhör” is at the heart of the novel form due to its concern with the inner life of a character, prompting the reader to interrogate the character and his or her actions. Similarly, Campe concludes, Törless reveals the way that interrogation, if not torture, forms the basis of the novel, specifically the Bildungsroman. In effect, he seems to imply, the inquisitive reader becomes part of the torture process by reading and posing questions about the novel and is thereby implicated in the “schuldfrage” or question of guilt. The active reader seems to echo the role of Törless who conducts mental torture through his exacting questions that force Basini to psychologically relive the physical brutality inflicted by the others. At the same time, I am arguing, this form of interrogation could also be directed toward the text itself, generating spaces of dissent. The critical reader can become a textual interlocutor, not only interrogating the characters and their actions, as Blankenburg proposed, but the author and his or her techniques. This intervention, however, must exceed the interrogations of Haneke’s teacher, whose objections were smothered by the pastor’s master narrative.

The viewer of The White Ribbon remains an outsider, excluded from the crucial moments of violence and brutality. For the viewer, these scenes become agonizing eternities of protracted waiting augmented by long pauses and silences. In one memorable scene, we are forced to wait in the hall while the pastor whips his children to punish them for their tardiness. We briefly see a young boy exit the room and return with a whip. In a way, it is our very exclusion from the events that makes us long to enter the privileged sphere of action. Like children watching the adults, seeking to access their seemingly sophisticated world, we are the spectators longing to penetrate this inscrutable scene from which we are denied. At the same time, however, we also assume the role of the parents who are barred from their children’s mysterious rituals, forced to make sense of these events through the puzzling evidence left behind. The camera, which often serves as a medium for voyeurism in other films creates a sense of disembodiment as the viewer becomes excluded from the central action of the plot. This effect is heightened by the pervasive dim lighting which barely allows us to register what transpires; we are literally kept in the dark. In a film in which children are always observing and spying, we are systematically kept out of doors and relegated to fleeting glimpses through darkened corridors, reinforcing our role as outsiders rather than actors or participants. Even the teacher, the film’s only redemptive figure capable of intervention, is relegated to an outsider role after he dares to accuse the children of wrongdoing.

At first glance, this marginalized position seems to align our sympathies with the scapegoat who is willfully excluded from society. Yet, echoing the reader’s interrogation of Törless, the viewer is not entirely innocent, particularly given the film’s aforementioned political subtext. The viewer’s urge for involvement in the mysterious activities of The White Ribbon replicates the fertile “conditions” for the formation of ideology on a cinematic level (Klawans 2009). Many of those who felt socially, economically, or intellectually marginalized found belonging in the Nazi party, which partly constituted itself through the expulsion of its scapegoats. Moreover, the fragmented form of The White Ribbon produces an epistemological desire for a master narrative, echoing the way the erosion of religious and political order in early twentieth century Europe prompted a turn toward ideologies like Fascism. Subjected to countless pauses, aporias, and almost unbearable silences, we long for simple answers or explanations–explanations which are initially promised but ultimately withheld. The seemingly innocuous desire for clarity and inclusion can quickly become a form of complicity in a violent system.

Viewed through a historical lens, Törless also offers an account of the rise of authoritarianism, which in oversimplified, Freudian terms could be construed as a longing for the absolute control of a father figure in the face of growing political chaos. Like The White Ribbon, it foregrounds the way collapsing authority in political life is mirrored in a profound epistemological crisis, namely the realization that “every area of our knowledge is riddled with such crevasses, nothing but fragments drifting in an unfathomable ocean” (132). In Törless’s words, which resonate with Girard, these two formation narratives reveal that “within us there is something stronger, bigger, more passionate, violent and darker than we are ourselves. Something over which we are so powerless that we can only aimlessly scatter a thousand seeds until suddenly one of them sprouts forth like a dark flame that towers over us” (103). Such feelings of impotency in the face of powerful forces are experienced by the marginalized viewers of The White Ribbon who are constantly made aware of the limitations of their own knowledge and control. Törless’s statement also aptly illustrates the way feelings of latency manifest themselves in the dangerous yearning for destruction in both the film and novella—a destruction which strips its victims of any agency or power except to acquiesce to its “dark flame.” This potent force not only anticipates the dangerous appeal of mass ideologies which tap into this “stronger, bigger, more passionate, violent and darker” urge, but also fundamentally questions the basic form of the Bildungsroman which by definition seeks to chronicle the progressive trajectory of formation from ignorance to enlightenment. The narrative of youthful formation becomes a sinister, adult tale of individual and social deformation.


[1] In his New York Times review, Stuart Klawans writes: “Despite Haneke’s avowed determination to leave viewers free to interpret, associations between the crimes committed in the movie on the cusp of World War I and the far greater crimes of 1933 to 1945 seem inescapable from the first moments of The White Ribbon, when the film’s voice-over narrator proposes that his story might ‘clarify some things that happened later in our country.’ More than one viewer has noticed the hint.” Indeed many journalists have commented on this link, ranging from A. O. Scott to Manohla Dargis who wrote: “the fathers who beat their children will soon march to war on behalf of the Fatherland” (Klawans, 2009). Scholars ranging from Patricia Brodsky to David Luft have written on the proto-fascist tendencies of The Confusions of the Young Törless.


Works Cited

Brodsky, Patricia . “The Military School: A Shared Source in Rilke and Musil.” Modern Language Studies 10.1, Winter, 1979-1980: p. 88-93.

Campe, Rudiger. “Das Bild und die Folter. Robert Musils Törleß

und die Form des Romans,” Weiterlesen. Literatur und Wissen, ed. by Ulrike Bergemann, Elisabeth Strowick, Bielefeld: 2007, p. 121-147.

Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. trans. by Patrick Gregory; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Gumbrecht, Hans. After 1945: Latency as Origin of the Present. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013.

Haneke, Michael. Das Weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte. ed. by Monika Willi, Filmladen: 2009.

Klawans, Stuart. “Fascism, Repression and ‘The White Ribbon,’”

The New York Times, October 30, 2009.

Luft, David. Robert Musil and the Crisis of European Culture 1880- 1942. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Musil, Robert . The Confusions of the Young Törless. trans. by Shaun Whiteside, New York: New York, Penguin Books, 2001.

—. Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß. Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 2009.

Karin Schiefer, “Michael Haneke: Das Weisse Band Interview,” Austrian Film Commission, June 2009.


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