Film Comment Selects: A Woman in Berlin Wednesday at 6PM
Director Max Färberböck returns to 1940s Germany (after Aimée and Jaguar, 1999) to examine a wartime tragedy that up until the last few years had been treated as fiercely off-limits: the rape of millions of German women during and after the Battle for Berlin, many of them multiple times, by the occupying/”liberating” Soviet military force.
A Woman in Berlin (2008) adapts a diary published back in the 1950s anonymously by a German journalist. The eponymous “Anon” (or “Anonyma”) recorded her experiences during this period with painful objectivity, rendering observations of daily life and horrors befalling herself and her neighbors, with even, unflinching eyes.
At the heart of my fascination with this film are two scenes of (relatively speaking) normal life towards the middle of the movie. The eponymous heroine Anon, reunites with a dear friend in the rubble of the street where they are both make daily rounds to salvage for food. They come together gleefully, old friends. Anon asks her: “How often?” Her friend scarcely hesitates: “Four times. You?” Anonyma can’t answer her, just laughs. They are referring, as established by the first half of the movie, to the numbers of times that they have been raped by the Soviet soldiers.
Anonyma brings her friend home to tea at along with her other neighbors. Given the wartime conditions of famine, this tea is a feast — one provided for and under the armed military protection of a Soviet Major to whom Anon has given herself to gain limited protection for the household. The conversation and spirit in the room are on the surface upbeat, gossip and current events, giggling and laughter, but the content of the conversation is deeply disturbing. Anon asks her friend about her husband. She answers, offhand: “He was with me the first time and is still a bit disturbed.” The conversation revolves around their partners, their sex-lives, typical ladies gathering stuff, only the target of their jibes shifts between their husbands and their rapists. One neighbor points out: “Our men aren’t what they used to be, either. They’re so weak it’s hard just to look at them.” “The weaker sex,” the oldest member of the gathering agrees.
And over the second half of the film, Fäberböck builds a strong case for this observation. Men have had their war, the defeat of Germany inevitable from the beginning of the diary. But it is the women, treated as spoils of war, who continue to suffer and who demonstrate the courage and strength to survive and carry Germany forward. These women are unwilling to accept the solution recommended by their country’s former leader: suicide. Instead of “death to prevent dishonor,” these women seek to survive, even while their once-proud men, deflated physically as well as idealistically, collapse around them.
Anon in a painful self-realization argues they might even deserve their suffering, as an act of balance — but Fäberböck refuses to make martyrs of his characters, favoring specific, lived experiences. Everyone in this film has suffered, is suffering, from civilians to German soldiers to Soviet soldiers. Rather than simply reversing the traditional cinematic subject of the World War II Germany-as-aggressor-villain to tell a story of German victims, Fäberböck keeps the division between German and Soviet crimes of atrocity and unfathomable suffering a grey, feathered line.
Anon is asked to translate from Russian into German the story told by a young Soviet soldier about the German soldiers capturing his town and taking all of the children and bashing them against walls until they were all dead. And even Anon’s relationship of convenience with the Soviet Major, the centerpoint of the second half of the film, deepens from one of carnal ownership into a sophisticated, romantic relationship. Fäberboöck’s takes his duty to the original diary too seriously to give us easy sentimental resolutions; his characters are too human to merely stand for ideas.
Buy tickets to A Woman in Berlin: Wed Feb 25: 6:00