Friday, July 17, 2009

Max Färberböck's A WOMAN IN BERLIN: Location, location, location


Most movies are somewhat dependent for their overall effect on the home country of the viewer. Once in a while, however, TrustMovies encounters a film that relies on this factor much more heavily -- which is the case, I believe, with Max Färberböck's A WOMAN IN BERLIN. While the movie is a strong one and well enough written, produced, directed and acted, its appeal for audiences will likely be greatest in Germany and maybe Russia -- the two countries most involved in its story of the final days and aftermath of World War II, as Russia attacked and finally overthrew the Germans. (It had help, of course, from the Allies, but in this movie concentration is given over, rightly, to the Russians and Germans.)

Based on the famous-in-
Germany book of the same name, written by the world-renowned author Anonyma (who's given us so many interesting works over time), the story tracks the life of a successful, well-traveled journalist -- a good German who believed wholeheartedly, as she explains early on, in the Nazi philosophy and plan for world domination. When this tome was initially written, it could not be published in Germany. This was due, I suspect, not only to its frank remembrances of wartime rape but to the image it provided of the German character, particularly that of a somewhat typical upscale German woman. Once published, it became a best-selling sensation. Now we have the not-unexpected movie version, helmed by adapter/director Färberböck (above), who, a decade ago, gave us the equally fine though under-rated Aimée & Jaguar, and staring the exceptional actress Nina Hoss (shown above on poster and below), who also starred in Yella and Jerichow, and whose beauty is exceeded only by her depth and range.

Not having read Anonyma's original, I can only guess that Färberböck has had to cut and paste, taking what he felt were the most important pieces and combining them in a way that renders his movie episodic but never uninteresting. He's had the good sense to make these episodes alternately vital and humdrum (not that wartime is ever quite humdrum, but you get my point). Rape is everywhere, for women young and old, physically attractive or not. But so are other things -- from murder (we see two German women we don't know walking along a street together, as one of them is shot dead for no apparent reason except sport -- and that she happens to be there) to deliberate collaboration, sexual and otherwise, in order to get food and protection.

The characterizations are about as richly drawn as possible in a movie that includes so very many. From the tenants of the building that becomes a kind of second home for the conquering Russian commander (Evgeny Sidikhin, above, center) to the commander's Mongolian aide-de-camp (Viktor Zhalsanov, above right), the people here seem quite real. What the movie demonstrates -- and well -- is how war changes things so drastically for both occupiers and occupied that mortal enemies can becomes friends and lovers. What this does, not just to the primary people involved but to their own neighbors -- and husbands -- is another matter. These things do not happen easily or quickly, but they take place despite the memories of the horrors (sometimes described here quite graphically) perpetrated by both sides.

Interestingly, while the talk in A Woman in Berlin is often frank (note the comments of the older woman -- Irm Hermann, above, center left -- about her rapist's comparison of the Ukranian and German vagina), the visuals are remarkably restrained. Färberböck evidently was determined not to make his movie "sensational." I was OK with this, but the companion with whom I attended the screening felt that the situations at hand could easily have used a bit more of the sleaze-and-nudity factor, without undue sensationalizing.

To return to my initial thoughts about the home country of the viewer: Americans, who have never experienced another nation conquering and occupying their country, can only look at A Woman in Berlin through the eyes and minds of a history they've read and viewed secondhand. We'll each have our own understanding of Nazi Germany and Russia, and our feelings about either nation and its back-story may not be particularly generous. This, coupled to our own lack of occupied-in-wartime history may hold us back from full identification with the characters on view. Trying to imagine ourselves as these Germans (or Russians), not just at the end of the war, as shown here, but during Hitler's rise and reign (or under Stalin, in the post-War period) might expand our appreciation of the film, while opening up our own humanity a notch or two.

A Woman in Berlin opens today, via Strand Releasing, July 17, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center, followed, one hopes, by a limited rollout nationwide. An eventual DVD release is probable.

2 comments:

Angelae said...

I've seen the movie twice in the last 14 days, and though difficult, it was engrossing. It won't be widely seen, but for those fortunate few, will be worth it.

The review was intelligent, insightful, and not-too politically correct. A refreshing critique for a horrific subject.

Thanks

-Angelae Le'Chastaignier

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks for the comment, Angelae. This movie has remained upfront in my consciousness longer than I expected. I'll probably see it again, too.