A Woman in Berlin (2008)

“Berlin is one big whorehouse.”

woman in berlinA Woman in Berlin (Anonyma-Eine Frau in Berlin) is based on the anonymous diaries of a young German woman. The nameless woman (who’s given the name Anonyma and is played by the incredible German actress Nina Hoss) is a journalist. The book,  published in Germany in the 50s, was not well-received and its author was accused of dishonouring German women. After her death, the book was republished and it became a bestseller. Then came this film version from director Max Farberbock.

The story takes place over a period of about 8 weeks and is set entirely in Berlin. When the film begins, it’s April 26th, 1945, and Berlin is a bombed out shell. The opening scene shows civilians picking their way over debris as they frantically try to find shelter from the bullets and constant explosions. A group of civilians huddle in an underground shelter. They are mainly women and children with a few older men amongst them.

Then as time passes, the explosions cease and an ominous silence begins. The silence is broken with the sounds of heavy equipment passing on the road above. The Red Army has arrived, and it’s just a matter of time before the German civilians are discovered hiding.

At first, the relations between the Soviet Red Army soldiers and the starving German civilians are very tentative. The Soviets encourage the women to step outside of their shelter and get food. By this time, a huge wagon piled full of potatoes sits out on a street, and within a little while, some of the women emerge to seek food. But as victory for the Russians sinks in, the German women are raped repeatedly. Age and illness are no defense. Married women are raped in front of their husbands.

After the first rapes take place, the women reassemble themselves and carry on as best they can. They return to their apartments in a vast building, and try to survive. Anonyma (the anonymous woman and the author of the diaries) emerges as a strong leader almost immediately, and since she speaks Russian, she has the advantage. Seeking out the commanding officer, Major Andreij Rybkin (Yevgeni Sidikhin), she asks him to reign in his men, protect the civilian women, and impose discipline. His reply: “all my men are healthy.”

The rapes continue, and the film creates an effective atmosphere of tension without loading the film with hard-to-watch details. The rapes are mainly depicted as men arriving drunk and chasing the women down until they manage to grab one. A few grunts later, it’s over.

As the weeks continue, Hitler’s suicide is announced, and any illusion that the Germans may have about their Fuehrer coming to their rescue is dashed. Anonyma sinks into the pace of the new life–with frequent rapes at all hours, she devises a plan for survival. Instead of being raped by multiple soldiers, she intends to accept just one and in so doing gain a protector. Just how she manages this is the substance of this riveting film.

In other less capable hands, this film could be a disaster. Too much sentimentality, and we’d have a film too unbearably painful to watch. Instead, A Woman in Berlin is delivered without a modicum of sentimentality, and given the film’s subject matter, the total absence of sentimentality is an incredible feat. Perhaps this is due to the author’s journalistic roots, but it’s the unsentimental treatment of the subject matter that makes the film so watchable and intense.

An early scene in the film establishes that Anonyma was a fascist and a follower of Hitler. She’s seen in better days via flashback in evening dress, whooping it up, toasting Hitler and the war, and she admits in the voiceover that she believed in her country’s “destiny” and that anyone who doubted was a “weakling.” Her complicity in the political madness that led to the deaths of millions taints her as a character, and while she’s not a combatant, she is guilty of endorsing and supporting Hitler’s destructive regime. In this instance, however, her fascist beliefs give her character depth and make her less sympathetic but more interesting. Perhaps this is best seen in the scenes when her fellow Germans whoop it up with the Russians, and while others become obsequious (as they stuff nazi books into incinerators), Anonyma maintains a sort of implacable grimy dignity amidst the squalor. Part of her dignity can be explained by her sheer toughness. She refuses to allow the acts of rape to conquer anything beyond her physical body.

One of the film’s subtlest and best handled themes is the treatment of civilians in wartime. While the film’s main focus is on the German civilians left in Berlin, the Soviet soldiers all have horrible, hair-raising stories to tell about the actions of the invading German army in Russia. In one understated scene Anonyoma translates to her fellow German women who find it difficult to believe that their countrymen were capable of such meaningless violence towards civilians.  Anonyma’s horror as she translates the tale  is apparent through her hesitation to even speak the words, and her supressed emotion is also just barely visible in her slight, but tightly controlled tremors. At the end of the translation, she asks the Soviet soldier if his story is hearsay or if he actually witnessed these incidents. He replied that he saw them, and the camera catches Anonyma’s expression as she silently acknowledges that the soldier’s stories are true.

Given the experiences of these Soviet soldiers, the message seems to be that what happens to the Berliners is mild in comparison. In spite of the fact that the Soviet soldiers are seen on frequent rampages for German women to rape, they are not depicted as monsters–with a couple of exceptions, their behaviour is seen partly as a release from tension and also partly as a result of drinking. One young soldier, for example, refuses to leave the apartment of a German family, even though the woman repeatedly tells him that she has a husband and that he must leave. The soldier’s sustained presence hints at a desire to stay with a family more than anything else. But even though relationships are established between the Berliners and the Soviets, the film never mistakes these relationships as anything other than unhealthy. While the Berliners may host raucous parties for the Soviets, the tension is always apparent just underneath the surface, and we can’t fool ourselves for a moment that the Germans can reign in the Soviets or refuse them anything.

The film falls apart towards the end, but Hoss’s strong portrayal manages to bind the film around her. The Soviets may leave but she will remain and survive, and this is evidenced by her solitary forays into the rubble of Berlin while soldiers stare or leer at her as she continues on her path…alone.

It’s a bit of a coincidence that I watched A Woman in Berlin so soon after watching I Was Nineteen–a film based on the experiences of the director–who as a 19-year-old of German extract was part of the Red Army invading force to enter Berlin. In one scene in I Was Nineteen, the main character Gregor meets a young German girl in Berlin who begs for his protection. He declines and leaves the girl to her fate, and although the film doesn’t explore what happens to the girl, I was reminded of her terror as I watched A Woman in Berlin.

For anyone interested in watching more of Nina Hoss, I recommend Jerichow and A Girl Called Rosemarie. On a final note, A Woman in Berlin concludes with Esenin’s Suicide Poem set to music:

“Goodbye my friend, goodbye.

My dear one, you are in my heart.  

Our predestined parting promises a future meeting.  

Goodbye, my friend, without hand or word, No grief and no sad face,–

In  this life there’s nothing new in dying,

But in living, of course, is nothing new either.”  

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