Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 23, 2009 10:55 am 
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Survival for women in wartime at a terrible price

To begin with the end note: When the anonymous memoir adapted here (Anonyma - Eine Frau in Berlin) was published in Switzerland in 1959, it was greeted with such outrage among Germans the author allowed no further editions; she of course never revealed her name. Here we are, fifty years later, and the material is still incendiary and hard to get your head around. It concerns events that are unspeakable and incomprehensible.

As played by the strikingly handsome, elegant Nina Hoss, "Anonyma" is an ash blond who can wear odds and ends as if they were couturier fashions, a journalist fluent in French and Russian, at home in Paris and London, who comes back from assignment to be in the Führer's capital for the final victory she still believes in. The Third Reich for her and her pals seems a time of freshness and energy for Germany. The war is just a blip on the horizon soon to be done with. She parties with fellow supporters of the Fatherland's great endeavor who toast the troops and boast that the buffoonish Russians will fall by the wayside. They don't, and when they invade Berlin and begin the wholesale raping of the German women, she chooses to mete out her favors selectively for her own protection and that of her neighbors in the apartment building. This is the story of how that happens.

When Berlin crumbles apartment dwellers are hiding in the basement, like ghosts; then, like condemned men and women given an uneasy reprieve, they return to living in the remnants of apartments. "Anonyma" moves in with a group of others in a large flat and turns over the studio she occupied with her absent soldier boyfriend Gerd (August Diehl), for whom she keeps a diary of what happens, to an unrepentantly Nazi young woman and the adolescent German soldier boyfriend she hides (Sebastian Urzendowsky), who is armed. This unwise gesture is the pistol we know will go off eventually, endangering everybody.

The film shows only two public events: the invasion, and the official German declaration that the Germans have surrendered Berlin. The period in between is the main focus of the diary and the film. It's not specified but it was between January and May 1945.

The film focuses on a handful of neighbors, who include two lively sisters (Joerdis Triebel, Rosalie Thomass), a strong-willed widow (Irm Hermann), an elderly bookseller (Katharina Blaschke), a liquor dealer (Maria Hartmann), a pair of lesbian lovers (Sandra Hueller, Isabell Gerschke), a refugee girl in hiding (Anne Kanis) and a stolid octogenarian (Erni Mangold). And there are more, not to mention a half dozen clearly defined Russians, including the high ranking officer's Mongolian guard and a jealous khaki-uniformed nurse.

It's a bit difficult to keep track of all these, and Woman in Berlin is best at making us feel close to the narrator and conveying a sense of the chaos and uncertainty when the invasion and the raping begin. There seems to be no one in control. It's hard to see that anything positive is going on. The Russians are just there, wandering free, and brutalizing the German women. When these women meet, the question they ask each other is not whether, but "How often?" Anonyma sleeps with various Russians, willingly and not. Protesting the violations and seeking a protective officer, she first becomes involved with Anatol (Roman Gribkov), a pretty, frivolous junior officer who turns out to be not a career soldier but a dairyman. He comes and goes and is no real help. She calls him "a gypsy." Then she finds a battalion commander, Major Rybkin (the excellent, charismatic Yevgeni Sidikhin), who is unresponsive when she confronts him boldly in front of a lot of Russian soldiers, and then comes around to find her. Unlike the Germans, she says later in her diary (which we see her constantly scribbling in pencil), the Russians appreciate an educated woman.

A strength of the film is that it alternates naturally between noise and violence, drunken celebration when Russians and Germans fraternize in the big apartment, and "love," which has lost its usual meaning, but lingers on. These extremes never seem overwrought or manipulative. Here's a time when in a film the fact that nothing makes sense, makes sense. The protagonist recognizes that in the eyes of many she is now a whore, but she questions what a whore is. She's changed forever. She's a survivor. She and the women like her can never tell what happened or they will be treated as pariahs, like the woman played by Emmanuelle Rivas in Renais' Hiroshima Mon Amour, who is mocked, shaved, and excluded from the society of Nevers for having had a German lover.

Marguerite Duras' screenplay for Hiroshima is poetic and overwrought, but in its rhythmic repetitions it conveys a strong sense of the aftermath of trauma not found in the somewhat overlong Woman in Berlin, which is simply about the confusion of day-to-survival in a world where morality is turned on its head. As Anonyma knew however, and as we see in the film, the defeated must capitulate or die, and the invaders have suffered horribly too. One young soldier recounts in Russian, demanding that she translate to all present, how invading Germans brutally slaughtered all the children in his village while he watched. Even Andreij's wife has been killed by the Germans. And the film shows the range of the Soviet peoples, the Ukrainians, Caucasians, Mongols, who, as victors, have a friendly coexistence.

Though reviewers and commentators seem to think they know what all this material means -- and proclaim judgments, if not on the protagonist, on the situation or the filmmaker -- this is primarily an example of Germans taking hard looks at repressed material that formerly was too ugly to examine. This isn't an impassioned indictment or defense, but a movie that uses an extraordinary diary (only published in Germany in 2003) to present an admirably complex picture of a crazy time. If it is both remarkable in its focus and at times quite old fashioned in its methods, that's as good a way as any to get things across. The result is both specific and wide-reaching, because there's ample time to ponder a basic issue for civilians in wartime: what does it cost you to survive? -- with a special emphasis on the plight of women who face an invading army.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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