Film: The White Ribbon (German Film)

The White Ribbon – Das Weisse Band

The pleasure and strength of a movie, I find, is when it keeps returning, either as an image or in a snatch of dialogue. This film, in black and white, slow paced, held me for nearly two and a half hours in the cinema. At some point I became aware that there is no film score – perhaps already at the beginning as the introductory credits rolled because a seat in front of the theatre squeaked as the patron shifted his weight! Perhaps when the only music produced was a reed whistle, or again when the camera pulled back in a long lingering shot over the landscape, registering an impending threat of war silently. Usually, at that point the music swells; here we were left in silence.

The black and white film faded in at the beginning, and faded out at the end. The voiceover, recounting the memories of an old man (a young teacher in the village) mimicked the opening of a photo album, in this case of a German village in 1913-1914. Wikipedia can fill in the details of the story and so on.…

I was struck with the authority structure in this Lutheran village. The Baron was the Lord of the land; the men were lords in their household. The Pastor was the moral presence. And over all, maintaining the order was the Lord God and a threat of judgement.

The Pastor’s way of ordering his family – especially the two eldest children – was by means of the white ribbon – and a threat of caning. The children must wear the ribbon to remind them of the temptation to sin, and their responsibility to control their ‘sinful’ urges. The boy, an emerging adolescent, was masturbating; the daughter was apparently not showing mature judgement. The white band the children echoed visually the preaching bands the Pastor father wore. His role as preacher is as moral guardian of the village.

The children (along with their mothers) suffered under this authority structure. They were required to address their father as Lord Father (Herr Vater); and proceeded to rebel.

The underside of this story is also revealed in the figure of the doctor: an apparently an upstanding village authority, but shown to ‘transgress’ and, in so doing, to brutalise his lover.

The film shows very starkly the way in which that Lutheran world, dominated by notion that all are sinners, led to the opposite of grace into cruelty. Within such a world obedience (Gehorsamkeit) was required: obedience to the Lord of the manor, to the head of the family, and morally to God who kept account of sin and consigned the sinner to eternal punishment. Oddly, the white ribbons, the whipping and other punishments, were thought to save! I was struck with the serious weight placed on a person’s own pledge.

[Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran, was faced with such attitudes as he supported the resistance to Hitler. His co-conspirators were members of the army and had given a pledge of allegiance to Hitler. Like the children of this film they were bound by the authority of the Leader (Fuehrer). Bonhoeffer wrote in order to release these men from their vow to Hitler. One memorable piece in his Ethics deals with telling the truth; Bonhoeffer attempts to destroy a moralistic understanding of ‘truth telling’. Another act of resistance is found in the Barmen Declaration (1934) where the Confessing Church resisted the absolute claim of the Hitler as Leader, rejecting any authority over the church other than the one true Word, Jesus Christ.]…

The day after seeing the film our Bible study group looked at the theme of resurrection in Paul’s letter to the Romans, especially chapter 8. With the words ‘Herr Vater’ (Lord Father) ringing in my ears, and the images of the fathers’ discipline and the children’s rebellion still vivid, I was struck with the difference in tone in Paul’s letter. For Paul it is the Father as Abba who is addressed in prayer; the cry of absolute dependence – a love which (in Jesus Christ) has chosen us from the beginning, and from which nothing can separate us. The Spirit is one who listens, speaks to the heart and carries our inarticulate groans as prayer. The remarkable image of ‘labour pains’ speaks of the ‘Father’ who gives birth – by the power of the Spirit – to a transformed creation. Such a remarkable process is vivid in Jürgen Moltmann’s phrase ‘the motherly Father’!

It occurs to me that if we want to appreciate how the events of the 1930s developed in Germany, this film sets out the authority structure which assisted them.

The irresolution at the end of the film leaves the viewer with a puzzle concerning what has happened. It also leaves a profound dissatisfaction with such a destructive environment. And, although we obviously do not have the same patterns of authority, I reckon this German film also prompts us to ask about the theological structures of authority and authoritarianism in our own church and society.

Wes Campbell
18th May 2010

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