Precious few films have moved me like Deutschland, bleiche Mutter (Germany, Pale Mother). Directed and narrated by Helma Sanders-Brahms in 1980, her autobiographic debut evokes a foreboding yet strangely pastoral cinematic experience. The opening scene is enough to stir the hardest of dispositions; Lene, the lead character, is walking by a river. We observe her future husband, Hans, and his friend sailing and making impudent observations about Lene and her family. When Lene is charged by a dog belonging to a company of Nazis, it is easy to make the elegiac correlation between the dog’s attack and the verbal onslaught masquerading in the men’s ‘light banter’.
Neither Hans and his friend—nor the soldiers—are responsible for Lene’s distress as she stops by an embankment to compose herself, rather it is the dog’s advance that breaks her confident poise and provides an allegory for the vitriolic testosterone all around her. The film’s inimitable motif is silence, and the way it is commanded by the very virtue of eine richtige Deutsche Frau (‘a model German woman’), a reality thrust upon Lene from the beginning and mirrored in her composure during the dog’s attack and again while she sits by the riverbank, soundlessly. Her daughter, the narrator, speaks for her when she says, ‘I have learnt to be silent’.
Throughout the film there are several damning examples of Lene’s disinclination (and later inability) to speak up and break the silence. Her unwillingness to do so is on a par with a great measure of culpability—not only for her own fate, but for that of the world around her. Lene’s silence is thus crucially interwoven with Germany’s collective shame and dishonour. “O Germany, pale mother! How soiled you are, as you sit among the peoples. You flaunt yourself among the besmirched.” (Bertolt Brecht).
During the war we witness the steady and matter-of-fact dehumanisation of Hans illustrated by his initial reluctance to shoot innocent women, all of whom resemble Lene and played by the same actress (Eva Mattes). His guilty conscious is soon replaced by a kind of pregnant apathy as we witness the swelling carnage he perpetrates. Unsurprisingly, his relationship with Lene deteriorates as a growing gulf separates the two and makes it impossible for them to relate to each other with the warmth and humour they enjoyed before the war. This dynamic, too, can be put down to a lack of communication and the tragic vow of silence taken by both parties.
A little like, ‘Hans, I won’t tell you about the rat infested dysentery teeming bunker your baby daughter and I are sleeping in if you don’t tell me about all the men, women and children you’ve pilled into a ditch and shot.’
And who can blame them?
The famous scene where Lene tells her daughter, Anna, the story of The Robber Bridegroom is juxtaposed beautifully against the harsh reality where mother and daughter are now homeless and trek through a snow-capped Bavarian forest to join family in the country, far away from war-ravaged Berlin. Shockingly, while Lene narrates the story to Anna she is raped by soldiers and claims that it is their right to do so. The fairytale is significant in this film for a variety of reasons that mirror Lene’s silence on one hand—and the struggles of the classic female heroine on the other. Lene, and by extension her daughter, are both victims of the men in their lives but significantly take their destiny into their own hands and battle, against all odds, to survive. It is in this survival that Lene finds her emancipation, albeit momentary. She is liberated by her newfound independence. Lene is afforded with a voice and she uses it to channel the voice of another doomed heroine, the girl in the fairytale.
As life reclaims a modicum of normalcy after the war, Lene and Hans are reunited in post-war Berlin. Tragically, they are unable to rekindle their love however and Lene spirals into despair worsened by the sudden onset of facial paralysis. The film ends with a terrible, heart-wrenching scene that will haunt me forever: Lene locks herself in the bathroom with the intention of killing herself, only to emerge, silent once again, into the pleading arms of a crying Anna who saves her mother by begging her to unlock the door and come out, into the proverbial light. Reliving this scene in prose is enough to give me goosebumps. Lene’s fate is uncertain; the independence and liberation she found during the war when she had no choice but to assert herself are now lost as she settles into a loveless marriage with Hans, a shadow of his former self.
Many fairytales portray women as needy, hapless princesses who are completely dependent on men—fathers, brothers, wizards, seven dwarves and charming princes—to rescue them from their incarceration, whether emblematic or not, and lead them on to greener pastures and brighter prospects. However not all fairytales follow this paradigm, and Bridegroom is a good example of one that doesn’t. It is the women in this tale who save the day by speaking their minds and breaking the code of silence that has plagued, repressed and beleaguered women for generations.
Lene’s culpability in the atrocities perpetrated by Nazi Germany mirrors that of an entire generation of German women who should have stood up and should have spoken out against the daily horrors they must have witnessed, first hand, simply by being there. But they chose to remain silent. They perpetuated the code of silence due to a host of circumstances that can never really be brought to a satisfying conclusion. From the cries of a neighbour being taken away in the middle of the night to transports upon transports of innocent men, women and children being shackled and carted off like animals, never to be seen again. Could Lene and her peers be as equally culpable as the Hanses and the Eichmanns and the Goebbels and the Hitlers of their generation simply by being silent and refusing to speak up against the madness?
As Anna narrates one of the final scenes she suggests, in reference to her mother’s silence, that perhaps Lene’s only sin was being born before her, and equally that her own saving grace was being born after her mother—inferring that Lene’s culpability simply cannot be measured by any modern standard in light of all that we now know, and all that we now take for granted. It is a disturbing idea, but one that I can’t ignore, nor undermine. I can’t reject the possibility that, in spite of my natural indignation and resistance of the unthinkable, that I too might have remained silent.