A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our shelter He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.
The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke’s chilling tale of mystery and violence engulfing a small German town prior to the start of the First World War, is a drama that bears as much relevance to our modern times as it does to the historical period it presents.
Set in the fictional, idyllic community of Eichwald, the film recounts the experiences of a young man known simply as “The School Teacher.” The son of a local tailor, he grows increasingly embroiled in the inexplicable and turbulent events that plague the townsfolk only months after his arrival. As the story begins, the town’s doctor is badly injured falling from his horse, the victim of a wire strung across his daily route—a route so familiar to everyone in the town that investigators are unable to identify a likely perpetrator. Next, a local farming woman dies in a sawmill accident, leaving a houseful of angry and suspicious sons behind her. When the local baron’s son is kidnapped and badly beaten, fingers are pointed at the bereaved farmers, but their ironclad alibis gradually convince the town that other culprits must be to blame.
Fields of crops are destroyed, buildings are burned to the ground, a local midwife’s handicapped son is brutally attacked, a young girl’s strange and violent dreams begin to come true, and those in positions of authority throughout the town—the doctor, the baron, his steward, and the local church minister—all grow increasingly violent and oppressive. Despite the earnest efforts of the schoolteacher, the events continue, horrifyingly unexplained. Finally, convinced that the peculiarly secretive and unusual children in the town are somehow bound up in the tragedies, he confides in the local churchman, only to be subjected to verbal and emotional abuse by the furious minister and told that his doubts are signs of a deeply troubled spirit—a spirit that will no longer be tolerated in the village. He departs, unwilling to continue his work in a town that is so clearly troubled and just as clearly committed to remaining that way. And the viewer is left to wonder uncomfortably about who is behind it all, and what can possibly be done.
The film’s final moments, set to the strains of the great Lutheran choral “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,” underscore Haneke’s stubborn refusal to deliver a nicely wrapped, straightforward cinematic package. Is his closing musical reference to an unfailing, divine bulwark a sardonic or a hopeful one? Are we to understand that the villagers will finally come to recognize the reasons behind the flood of mortal ills to which they are subjected? Or is the director simply ridiculing the townspeople’s (and our own) ill-fated attempts to cling to religion in the face of the coming militaristic and moral storm?
Ostensibly about the roots of the Nazi movement, the film’s message runs far deeper than that. It is about sin and suffering, about our past and our future (and the incontrovertible connection between the two), and the brutal, bizarre things people do in the name of love. But above all, it is about legitimate authority, the profound and corrupting dangers of its misuse, and the great lengths to which a society will go in its stubborn refusal to recognize and act on the evil that lies before it.
In many ways, The White Ribbon foreshadows the troubled times in which we Catholics now find ourselves. We are bombarded by confirmed stories (and endless allegations) of clerical impropriety, subjected almost daily to crushing revelations of the worst kind. We know with ever-growing clarity that some who have been given authority over us have unconscionably abused that most sacred of responsibilities—the responsibility of guiding and nurturing our very souls—for their own twisted and evil purposes. Betrayal by one’s leaders will always sting. But the treachery of those we must trust above all others is the deepest and darkest of betrayals. It undermines their authority, as well as our ability to rely on their successors for those things most essential to our happiness.
Yet Christ Himself called Judas, and we must take comfort in that.
As Catholics, we should not deny the existence of our Judases, nor should we seek to lessen or expunge the evils they have committed in the eyes of the world. Our doubt is not a failing on our part; it is the consequence of the failings of another. But we must be careful and clear about what exactly (and Whom) we are doubting. Our Church (and its hierarchy) is made up of humans as prone to sinful actions as are we. Yet we must remember that, no matter how clearly we are shown the clay-footed reality of our clerics, we are not members of our Church because of them. We are part of an institution we believe to be founded and guided by God Himself, no matter how human (and inhuman) His instruments.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman has said, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” We must strain and struggle to remember that distinction, particularly in times like these. The dichotomy between the mistrust we now feel in our fellow humans and the trust we must always have in the strength and omniscient power of the Divine Comforter has never been clearer for those of our generation. But remembering that they are but two sides of the same coin should give us hope in the face of our advancing fears.
As John Donne wrote, “Despair is the damp of hell.” It is only by recognizing that God knows of and grieves for our loss of innocence, and believing that His Church will overcome this great threat (as it has survived every grave threat throughout its history), that we will avoid the damp clutches of despair. No matter how we are dragged down by our own sins and the failings of those around us, our Shelter and Bulwark is always there, as unfailing as ever.
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