Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review: "A Woman in Berlin"

As great as many World War II films are, going back to the days of Mrs. Miniver, From Here to Eternity, The Best Years of Our Lives, Patton, The Longest Day, to more modern examples such as Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, The Pianist, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Flags of Our Fathers, and Letters from Iwo Jima, it's very easy to get burnt out on the sheer amount of cinematic dramas that deal in some way with either WWII or the Holocaust.

The problem is that many of them seem so similar. While most are earnest and well meaning, the subject has been so well covered in film that unless the film has something unique or original to convey (such as in I Served the King of England), then yet another one seems like beating a dead horse.

Max Faerberboeck's A Woman in Berlin is an interesting case. While structurally and tonally it very much fits into the mode of a typical WWII drama, but it at least takes the time to tell us a story that has not yet been told.

Based on the controversial German novel Anonyma: A Woman in Berlin, a memoir by an unknown woman whose identity has never been revealed, chronicling her life in Berlin during the Soveit occupation during the final days of the war. It was a dark time for many civilians, as the Russian soldiers pillaged homes and raped German women, treating everyone and everything as spoils of war to the victorious conquerors. With everyone around her distressed and demoralized, Anonyma (the luminous Nina Hoss), out of a strong sense of self preservation, decides to take matters into her own hands and find a "wolf," a Russian officer who will become protect her in exchange for sexual favors.

She finds one in the form of Andrej (Evgeny Sidikhin), a polite but stern officer who takes her under his wing. But as time goes on, their relationship becomes much deeper, as Anonyma begins to discover her new found love for Andrej, whose status as a Russian officer keeps him from having a real relationship with her. While she and her family enjoy the privileges of his protection, it doesn't take long for other officers, and their neighbors, to become suspicious.

At it's heart, A Woman in Berlin is a story of forbidden love, set against a backdrop of war. But it's focus is much more intimate. To his credit, Faerberboeck doesn't turn this into a sweeping, epic love story. It is always intensely personal and completely real, despite a kind of typical WWII movie feel to it. The sets and the costumes, out of necessity of course, all feel very familiar, and there is a certain sense of deja vu to the entire affair. The central story is reminiscent of Black Book, while the look of the film recalls the Oscar nominated Katyn. A Woman in Berlin is much better than Katyn, however, and while not on the level of Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, it maintains interest with its beautiful production and powerful performances, especially Hoss' haunting and heartbreaking turn as Anonyma.

A Woman in Berlin chronicles a time in Germany's history that many consider shameful, with a great deal of women from the time refusing to admit what was done to them and what they did to protect themselves. Anonyma was the one who spoke out, to great outrage. It is a story that is not often heard, and Faerberboeck treats it honorably with this restrained and respectful film. While there is little to distinguish it from other films of this type, its unique story and strong central character make it well worth watching.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

A WOMAN IN BERLIN; Directed by Max Faerberboeck; Stars Nina Hoss, Evgeny Sidikhin, Irm Hermann, Ruediger Vogler, Ulrike Krumbiegel; Not Rated; In German and Russian with English subtitles. Opens tomorrow, 7/17, in limited release.

1 comment:

Charles said...

Sometimes authors use a novel or screenplay to support political or social beliefs; or to cry out for morality and ethical principles. This is no more clearly evident than with Holocaust books and films. Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize the Holocaust, or to those who support genocide we send a critical message to the world. Even movies such as "Death in Love," or World War II movies in general, can carry the message of how terrifying the time was. While we may argue that such stories can be told without graphic content, we must admit that such events occurred and that they all contribute to the evil of war and genocide. All of the most mendacious events and behaviors that we can construe were part of World War II.

We live in an age of vulnerability. Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. We know from captured German war records that millions of innocent Jews (and others) were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany - most in gas chambers. Holocaust books and films help to tell the true story of the Shoah, combating anti-Semitic historical revision. And, they protect future generations from making the same mistakes.

I wrote "Jacob's Courage" to promote Holocaust education. This coming of age love story presents accurate scenes and situations of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, with particular attention to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. It examines a constellation of emotions during a time of incomprehensible brutality. A world that continues to allow genocide requires such ethical reminders and remediation.

Many authors feel compelled to use their talent to promote moral causes. Books and movies about World War II carry that message globally, in an age when the world needs to learn that genocide is unacceptable. Such authors attempt to show the world that religious, racial, ethnic and gender persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny's only hope.

Charles Weinblatt
Author, "Jacob's Courage"
http://jacobscourage.wordpress.com/