“Der Vorname” probes the politics of nomenclature

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FROM ITS first scene, “Der Vorname” reminds the viewer of the importance of nomenclature. As a pizza-delivery boy winds his way through the picturesque roads of Bonn, he passes some of the great names in German history: Beethoven Street, Adenauer Street, Bismarck Street, Lessing Street. He mistakenly rings the doorbell of Elisabeth (Caroline Peters) and her intellectual husband Stephan (Christoph Maria Herbst), who are preparing for a dinner party. It is a celebratory occasion—Thomas (Florian David Fitz), Elisabeth’s younger brother, is to become a father for the first time. Anna, his heavily pregnant girlfriend, is joining the festivities later.  

While Thomas proudly passes the ultrasound scan around his friends and family, Stephan begins to open the first bottle of red wine. He asks the question all prospective parents must face: has a name been decided? The father-to-be, teasing his audience, demands that they guess. “It begins with an ‘A’” he adds, and when the exasperated guests give up, he announces the chosen name—“Adolf”. The cork is pulled from the bottle, and the room immediately falls silent. Expressions change from amiable mirth to mortification.

“Adolf? Are you crazy?” Stephan cries, and a heated argument ensues about whether the first name of a man “who extinguished half of Europe” (in Stephan’s words) should also be “extinguished for ever” (in Thomas’s). Thomas asks his brother-in-law whether a boy named Adolf would automatically become evil. The problem, he maintains, is really “so-called lefties who claim to be against Hitler, but gloat over his atrocities by watching Phönix [a German television channel which broadcasts news and documentaries] each night”.

The baby’s intended name is actually Paul, after its grandfather, but Thomas has missed any opportune moment to say so. When Anna arrives at the party, the mood is sour, and worsening. She assumes that her boyfriend has revealed the correct name and praises their choice of a good old-fashioned German moniker. When the other guests vehemently disagree, she is confused and quickly becomes defensive. “Whoever calls their children Caius and Antigone can’t tell me anything!” she snipes at Stephan. Other affronts and verbal attacks inevitably follow; the evening ends in chaos.

Though it is yoked to the atrocities of the second world war, the name Adolf is not forbidden in Germany, unlike the swastika or the Hitler salute. Fewer than 50,000 of the country’s 40.8m male inhabitants have the name, but it is not dying out completely. According to the Association for the German Language, which has been collecting data on the first names given to babies born in the country since 2010, 10 boys born in that year were called “Adolf”. In 2017 there were 21. Parents who want to use the name may have to explain their decision to registry offices, and may not be allowed to do so if they have plumped for it on ideological grounds. Frauke Rüdebusch of the language association hopes that “Der Vorname” might make parents-to-be think twice before choosing it.

The reason that Thomas’s family reacts in the way it does—and why many audience members will wince when watching the film—is because baby names do serve as a sort of barometer of cultural and social trends. They can reflect a nostalgia for a certain era, or the popularity of a television show or film (343 British children were named “Arya”, after a character in “Game of Thrones”, in 2017). “Adolf”, which rose in popularity between 1933 and 1942 but fell sharply after the war, is a particularly sensitive example. Thomas’s tasteless joke hits a nerve at a time when nationalism, xenophobic public discourse and far-right parties are on the rise again in Germany and elsewhere. When “Le Prénom”, a French film on which “Der Vorname” is based, was released in 2012 the premise was more plainly ludicrous. The possibility of baby “Adolphe” pointed to fickle bourgeois Parisian society, not darker political moods.

What makes Claudius Pläging’s script so funny is not its use of black comedy but its insight into family dynamics, where the dispute over the name merely provides a pretext for guests at the table to air stifled grievances (of which there are many). It is something audiences can relate to; Constantin Film, the production company, says that it has been overwhelmed by the movie’s positive reception so far. Still, “Der Vorname” ends happily. “Families have arguments and disagreements,” Elisabeth says, “but they pull themselves together and get along with each other again.” Nothing brings more joy, happiness and reconciliation to a family than the birth of a child.

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East Europeans see faith as a gateway to nationality

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AMONG THE historically Christian countries of Europe, how strong is the feeling that you have to adhere to that faith to be a real son or daughter of the nation? As a newly published piece of research shows, answers to that question vary vastly across the continent, with nativist sentiment generally growing as you travel east and south, albeit with some interesting exceptions.

This was one of the more striking conclusions of a study by Pew Research, a pollster based in Washington DC, which processed responses from nearly 56,000 people over two years. 

Christian nativist feeling was at its strongest in small countries in the continent’s eastern half where the emergence of a culturally distinctive church, and its survival through aeons of adversity, is an important part of the national narrative, as disseminated through schools and public discourse.

Thus 82% of Armenians and 81% of Georgians (pictured) saw Christianity as an important national characteristic: those two lands vie for the title of oldest national church, with stories of mass conversions that go back to the fourth century and possibly earlier. 

Countries where Christianity was preserved (and in certain paradoxical ways, reinforced) during centuries of Ottoman Muslim rule also attach significance to their faith. Thus 76% of Greeks considered Christianity “very” or “somewhat” important in order to be truly part of the nation, as did 78% of Serbs, 76% of Greeks, 74% of Romanians and 66% of Bulgarians. 

In larger ex-communist countries, perhaps less imbued with a sense of the faith’s vulnerability, the robustly Christian share is a bit smaller but still in the majority. Thus 57% of people in Russia see the faith as fairly important, at least, to national identity, as do 51% of Ukrainians.

In the big and relatively secular nations of western Europe, a majority rejects the idea of Christianity as a necessary condition for national belonging, but quite substantial minorities continue to link nationhood and religion. In Germany, France and Britain, the picture is almost identical: two-thirds see the faith as not very important while a third call it somewhat important or more. The fact that England has a state church, France has a strictly secular regime and Germany accords certain privileges to Christian churches seems not to make much difference.

And perversely but not unexpectedly, Nordic countries where the (Protestant) church has ceremonial privileges are among the least convinced that the faith should be connected with nationhood. In Norway where the national church is Lutheran, 78% feel Christianity is fairly unimportant, or less, as a national marker, while 84% feel that way in Sweden, which has a Lutheran monarchy.

Generally, attachment to Christianity seems strongest in places where the faith, often laced with patriotism, is on the rebound after being curbed by communism. But there are some big exceptions. The Czech Republic, Estonia and Latvia all lived under the hammer-and-sickle but are now very secular places, showing attitudes similar to the most liberal parts of Scandinavia. A mere 11% of Latvians see Christianity as important to their identity, the lowest figure in Europe. Perhaps the Estonians and Latvians resemble their Nordic neighbours in this respect because they too adopted Christianity relatively late.

How does the United States compare? More clearly than any European country except France, the American constitution lays down a rigorous separation of religion and state and excludes the idea of a nationally established religion.

Yet a separate survey taken by Pew at the beginning of last year, just after  the newly elected President Donald Trump announced a ban on migration from seven mainly Muslim countries, showed that 32% of Americans assented to the proposition that one should be Christian in order to be really American; the figure was 43% among Republicans and 29% among Democrats. That places America somewhere in the middle of the European spectrum. 

One of the difficulties in decoding polling data like these is that in the most religiously patriotic countries, faith and national pride can be almost inseparable in people’s minds. 

When someone identifies as a proud member of say, the Georgian Orthodox or Armenian Apostolic Church, that can simply be another way of saying “I am Georgian” or “I am Armenian”. In the speaker’s mind, national and religious characteristics may be interchangeable, and not really have much to do with God, metaphysics or morals. 

Whatever such statements really mean, the impulse to fuse religion and nationality makes it harder for an outsider to become part of the national family, even though the correlation between Christian nativism and wariness towards, say, migrants is not precise.

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