Our local community has started a Film Club. Yes, we are just that arty and cool. The Club shows Foreign Movies With Subtitles, Angst-Ridden Art Movies, and Offbeat Low Budget Indie Movies. It's all very Sundance at the Capitol Theatre on Friday nights.
Last Friday's offering was a German movie - The White Ribbon - written and directed by Michael Haneke (2009), and set in a small German village during the last year before World War I. I don't like movies much, although I go often enough - for the fun of the excursion, for the feeling of anticipation as you sit waiting in the dark, and for the popcorn. But this movie was really worth watching for its own sake. If I had to give just one reason why it's so good, I'd say it's because - unlike most movies - it obeys the important injunction: show, don't tell.
Excellent though this movie might be, what - you might ask - does it have to do with matters equine? Apart from an unfortunate scene involving an injured horse, there's not much at first glance to connect the film to this blog. But synchronicity reared its head again in the shape of a congruity between one of the movie's themes and a comment recently left here by Jen-ska, wherein she quoted Ephesians 5:13: All condemned things are revealed under the light, and each thing, when it is made visible, itself turns into light.
I don't want to drop a spoiler and tell the whole story, as this movie is definitely worth seeing for yourself, so I'll try to skirt around the plot as I explain.
Jen-ska's comment was (if I interpret her correctly) in relation to my allowing George some latitude to express his negative feelings. One could argue that if his negative/angry/hostile impulses are slapped down as soon as they arise, they may not disappear but simply go underground and fester. If, on the other hand, we allow them to be seen and heard, in the atmosphere of fresh air and daylight they may come to seem not so scary after all. This is particularly the case when one considers that the impulses in themselves do not stem from anger or hostility, but rather that anger/hostility is the armour put on by fear when it strikes out into the open. If we meet that facade with anger of our own, then the horse's fear of us can trump his inner fear and make him "behave." However, we have then created an automaton.
If, on the other hand, we greet the anger with a quiet "hello," perhaps the underlying emotions can see that the coast is clear and peek out of hiding from behind their shield - perhaps the real horse can then emerge.
There is a character in The White Ribbon - a Lutheran pastor - who holds rigidly to what he considers to be the proper code of behaviour - for himself, his family, and his fellow-villagers. His white-knuckle adherence to this standard makes him unyielding to those under his authority. He extols the beauty of purity, forcing his children to wear the white ribbon of the title as a reminder of this virtue, and trivial infractions assume the proportions of major sins against God, to be mercilessly stamped out.
The problem for this pastor is that real evil is lurking within his village, showing itself in a series of mysterious, malicious acts. The perpetrators of these acts of violence remain undiscovered, until one day circumstances bring it within the pastor's purview to unearth the truth. At that moment, we see that the pastor is not really concerned with the truth at all but is afraid of it. When offered the opportunity to unveil the truth and to confront the evil, his courage fails him. He simply does not have the resources to face up to the danger of this discovery; all he has to guide him are the empty rules which mask his fear. (To what extent the evil is a product of his own failings, I will leave future viewers of the movie to find out for themselves.)
Because the pastor chooses the appearance of virtue over the genuine article, the real evil threatening his community remains in the dark, where it can grow in power and malevolence. There is a suggestion in the film that the horrors of the Nazi regime and the holocaust are rooted in this darkness - possibly in this very village. Perhaps this one man had it in his power to shine a light into that darkness and ultimately prevent global chaos. But he did not have the courage to confront the monster with light and bring it out into the open where it could itself "become light."
The movie does not portray the pastor as a caricature of a sadistic, cold-hearted man. There is another side of him, shown in his relationship to one of his younger children. This little boy has clearly been trained to treat his father as an autocratic ruler; but he has an innocent directness in his dealings with his father which disarms the man. He asks his father if he may keep and tend an injured bird he has found. The pastor agrees but extracts an agreement from the boy that he will release the bird to the wild when it has recovered. The movie does not return to the topic except briefly, later, when we observe that there must have been a re-negotiation, as the bird is still around - clearly it has been allowed to stay.
The pastor is not the only culprit in the film. The world he inhabits is one where mistakes are unforgiven and retribution automatic and swift. He has himself probably been raised in an atmosphere of brutality; he is both victim and perpetrator, son and father - horse and trainer.
The pastor lacks the tools which would have enabled him to face the truth - the same ones we need to face the truth within our horses and within ourselves: trust, love, faith, hope, courage - and a willingness to tolerate uncertainty as we wait for an unpredictable outcome. With horses, as with humans, I believe, attempting to impose control in an effort to "tame the beast" is ultimately fruitless. That is, if by "control" we mean the determination to dominate and dictate.
True control must, and does, come from within. All creatures have an inbuilt self-control - which allows them to adjust to their situation and act in their own best interests, as well as in the interests of their neighbours. True "purity" is a beautiful thing - an indwelling virtue, which (as the pastor rightly realizes) is a gift of childhood. The film shows several lovely scenes where snow covers the landscape. The white snow is unblemished and pure but is only a surface, blanketing what lies beneath. The pastor's purity is also merely a veneer, covering the chaos below. Or - let's give him credit - he truly loves purity, but he wishes to impose it from the outside, like a layer of snow. In his younger son, he is faced with true inner purity and is softened by it, dimly understanding that this purity is what is needful. His attempt to impose purity fails because he tries to force acceptance of this gift, instead of offering it freely. He fails also because he cannot admit his own weakness and fear, not knowing that weakness and fear are not themselves antithetical to purity, but only when they turn into anger and violence.
Just as I want my horse to lay his feelings on the table, so also I believe sometimes the best I can offer my horse is precisely my weakness and fear. My inadequacies, standing their ground and showing their face, are a better gift than a false strength. Fear is not the same as cowardice, and to be weak is not the same as being manipulable.
The first thing that Adam and Eve do after the Fall is to hide, first from each other, and then from God - they run away into that darkness where the light cannot penetrate. I sometimes wonder if they hadn't hidden - what would have happened? Maybe all the consequences of the Fall could have been instantly erased.
There are, I'm sure, dark corners in my soul, many lurking secrets unwilling to be illuminated. But one thing our horses can do for us (and we for them) is give us the courage to face our fears, in the confident hope that by shining the light into the darkness, we may ourselves become light.