Tag Archives: WWII

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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I Was Nineteen (1968)

“Perhaps you underestimate the Nazi movement’s irresistibility. It was a continuation of German history. You quoted Kant, but you misunderstood him. The categorical imperative to obey any order an authority gives us was a trait of this people before Hitler. The need to fulfill our duties. This was just an escalation. An artificially induced frenzy of obedience. The result of long-suffered degradation. An explosion of sadism. A phenomenon. We have been destroyed like no other race.”

I came across the title I Was Nineteen (Ich War Neunzehn) on a list of the ‘100 best German films ever.’ Some of the films are sadly no longer available, but I noticed that both A Girl Called Rosemarie and The Kaiser’s Lackey made the list, and since those were both great films, it seemed possible that  I Was Nineteen would be something special too.

It was….

I was nineteenI Was Nineteen is based on the memoirs of East German film director Konrad Wolf. Wolf was a lieutenant in the Red Army during WWII, and for a short period, he was the commander of Bernau in the spring of 1945.

The protagonist of I was Nineteen is 19-year-old Gregor Hecker (Jaecki Schwarz) who arrives on the outskirts of Berlin as a member of the Red Army advance scouting team. Part of Gregor’s job is to man the megaphone and tell the German soldiers that the war is over, they’ve lost, and they should surrender. Gregor is a uniquely valuable member of the team as he’s a product of a German parents who moved to the U.S.S.R and he can speak fluent German.

Based on Wolf’s diaries, the film is largely episodic and lacks a smooth narrative. Gregor is seen as a reflective mirror of the drama, and some of his recorded experiences remain more powerful than others. Some of the Germans, once they realise that Gregor is a ‘fellow’ German, imagine that this means he will be kinder and that they will receive different treatment at his hands. But Gregor doesn’t identify with Germany, its people or its lost cause in the least. He’s appalled by the actions of the Third Reich, and in one of the segments, he’s in the home of a German who intellectualizes the mass slaughter. Gregor isn’t even interested, and if anything, his slightly impatient expression seems to question why they even allow the man to spout his theories. Another of the very first segments depicts a young German girl in Bernau, obviously traumatized by recent incidents. The town is practically deserted, and the girl has drifted to Bernau from elsewhere. Terrified by the presence of the Red Army, she begs Gregor for protection in the hostile presence of a female Red Army soldier. There’s no sentimentality–even though for one moment, the film seems about to lean in that direction.

In another episode, Gregor arrives at a deserted concentration camp. He and his fellow Red Army soldiers anticipate liberating prisoners, but they have arrived too late. Archival footage of the gas chambers and the procedures used are grafted onto the film for a grim authenticity.

At another point in the film, Gregor is a translator for the Red Army officer who tries to persuade the German officers at Spandau to surrender. This is perhaps the most tense and arguably the most interesting segment of the film. The collapse of the Third Reich is evident at this point–it’s just that some people are admitting it and others are still delusional while the division between the Wehrmacht and the Nazi officers widens.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film’s unusual persepective is Gregor’s reaction to the German officers. While some of the Germans seem perplexed by Gregor’s role, Gregor views the officers as “blue-blooded bastards” who led the country into the path of madness. In spite of the fact that the war is ‘over,’ the film shows that this was an extraordinarily sensitive and dangerous time with some Germans refusing to accept defeat and surrender, while the ‘common’ foot soldier just wanted to go home. The film’s scenes show the destruction of the German army from within as some Germans refuse to surrender and try to kill those who hand over their weapons. 

I Was Nineteen is absolutely fascinating–in spite of its lack of momentum and with tension ebbing and flowing.  A May Day celebration, for example, interrupts the dangerous penetration of Germany, and makes the audience relax–much too early as it turns out. The fate of the German soldiers rounded up by Gregor and his fellow Red Army soldiers is not apparent, but their destination is the U.S.S.R, and many would never return….

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Katyn (2007)

katynThe Polish film Katyn (aka Post Mortem, Opowiesc Katynska) begins appropriately in 1939 with two sets of Poles passing and fleeing in opposite directions. One group is fleeing from the Nazis and the other group is fleeing from the Red Army. Fleeing from one army sends the Poles slap bang into the other option–it’s the devil or the deep blue sea, and as I watched this scene I asked myself which side I would run to (or from)? If I were Jewish, I’d run to the Red Army, but what if I were a Polish Army officer? Which side would be the most likely to respect POWs?

Katyn from director Andrzej Wajda explores the horrendous true story of what happened to over 20,000 Polish Officers and civilians at the hands of the Red Army. The film tells the story mainly through the eyes of Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) who travels on bicycle with her young daughter, towards the Polish border and the onslaught of the Red Army. All the soldiers have been released but the officers are rounded up and held in make-shift camps. Here she has a very brief reunion with her husband, Polish Army officer Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski). She begs him to flee with her but Andrzej refuses. Instead he and his friend, Lt. Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra) are shipped out together to yet another camp.

The film follows Anna’s struggles to return across the Polish border and the years that follow. While Anna and many other Polish officer wives believe their husbands are still alive, news begins to trickle out that mass graves have been discovered in the Katyn forest.

Some scenes depict the Polish officers in the Soviet controlled camps waiting to be ‘shipped out’, and the plot follows both the Nazi and the Soviet propaganda surrounding the story as both sides blame each other for the slaughter and the bodies are dug up multiple times for evidence. The timeline of the mass murders becomes the crucial element–with the Soviets insisting that the officers were slaughtered when the area was under Nazi occupation and the Nazis insisting that the Poles were murdered by the Red Army in 1940.

At first the Nazis in occupied Poland pressured widows to sign statements incriminating the Soviets but when the Soviets reoccupy Poland they show propaganda films blaming the atrocity on the Nazis. And the world, already aware of the Nazi death camps accepted the news that even more atrocities had been committed by the Nazis.

The film’s narrative wavers about 2/3 of the way into the film as the characters we have followed are dropped and new characters are introduced and summarily squashed by the Bolshies as it becomes perfectly clear that under the Soviet-controlled regime, the families of Katyn victims had to endure a yoke of silence or bear the consequences…. Focusing on Poland, the film doesn’t explore the Allied involvement in the cover-up. Winston Churchill, for example, publicly blamed the Nazis but privately knew the Bolshies were responsible, and American reports were suppressed and destroyed. The film also does not include the fact that officers were not the only victims–policeman and boy scouts were also rounded up and exterminated. Those points aside, the enactments of the systematic murder of thousands of officers is accurately portrayed, and the result is a moving film in which the Polish people are show in the crossfire of two pathological, murderous powers. The overwhelming feeling is great sorrow for the victims and amazement that anyone survived this mess. The director was 14 years old at the time of the Katyn slaughter and his own father, Jakub Wajda was one of the murdered.

At the time of Katyn, the world was not yet aware of Stalin’s monstrous policies. I should add here that Katyn was Beria’s idea but it was an idea that certainly fit into Stalin’s Soviet model. According to author Orlando Figes in his book The Whisperers:

“Extraordinary even by the standards of the Stalinist regime, the Great terror was not a routine wave of mass arrests, such as those that swept across the country throughout Stalin’s reign, but a calculated policy of mass murder. No longer satisfied with imprisoning his real or imagined ‘political enemies’, Stalin now ordered the police to take people out of the prisons and labour camps and murder them. In the two years 1937 and 1938, according to incomplete statistics, a staggering total of at least 681,692 people, and probably far more, were shot for ‘crimes against the state’ (91 per cent of all death sentences for political crimes between 1921 and 1940, if NKVD figures are to be believed).”

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A Month By the Lake (1995)

a month by the lakeFans of British films set in the picturesque tourist destinations of Italy should really enjoy the engaging and highly entertaining film, A Month By the Lake from director John Irvin and based on a story by H.E.Bates. And while nothing much really happens in the film it’s an enjoyable romp, thanks mainly to the talents of the film’s leading actors Vanessa Redgrave and James Fox.

One of the unspoken rules in films that depict the British abroad, is that away from the damp and the fog of their native land, they tend to drop inhibitions and go just a little crazy as they engage in activities and relationships they wouldn’t dream of indulging in in their native land. Take Shirley Valentine and Where Angels Fear To Tread–just two of dozen of titles that explore the behaviour of the British abroad.

A Month By the Lake begins with Miss Bentley (veteran actress Vanessa Redgrave) striding up the steps of an elegant lakeside Italian villa. This is the Lake Como resort Miss Bentley has visited every year for 16 years, but this is the first time she’s come alone. Although her father has recently died, Miss Bentley returns alone to the resort as she loves Lake Como and has made firm friends amongst the other guests. This is, we are told via voice over narration, that last glorious summer before the war.

But while rumours of war grumble in the background, the action focuses on the villa and its guests. There are a couple of middle-aged American women there and also the solitary retired British Major Wilshaw (James Fox). Lonely Miss Bentley is attracted to Major Wilshaw on the very first day, and while circumstances throw them together upon occasion, he’s beguiled by the saucy, young American governess, Miss Beaumont (Uma Thurman) who has charge of two little Italian girls.

This gentle romance follows the trials and tribulations of Wilshaw’s courtship, and while the film could so easily have become cliched and like a million other films on the same subject, A Month By the Lake is saved by its wry humour and sly look at the many foibles of human behaviour–vanity, willfulness, boredom and loneliness all gilded with the fact that these characters are far away from home and the repercussions of their behaviour may not wash ashore on their doorsteps.

The film keeps the shadows of impending war in the background, but the sense remains that so much is on the brink of loss and destruction. Vanessa Redgrave steals the film as the buoyant Miss Bentley, so easy to underestimate and designate as “spinster” while underneath passion and an irrepressible zest for life longs to burst free

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Svoi (Our Own) 2004

 “A woman and a cow need their udders touched tenderly.”

SVOI (Our Own) is an amazing Russian film that explores shifting alliances and divided loyalties against the backdrop of the German invasion of Belarus during WWII. Interestingly, the film keeps the Germans–more or less–in the background of this tense, tight drama, and although the Germans swoop in occasionally like a plague of locusts, the action mainly focuses on how Russians, fractured by politics, see each other as ‘the enemy.’

I’m not a fan of most war films as I find the way film tends to concentrate on all the flag waving, patriotism and noble death stuff behind those governments, politicians, and megalomaniacs determined to off  large numbers of humans in lemming-like marches to their collective, meaningless suicides while collecting rotten pay and a few tacky bits of ribbon and metal along the way, well…absurd and nauseating.

In spite of the fact this Russian film is set in WWII and initially seems to set the stage for the repeat of a typical WWII scenario, instead the plot manages to avoid all those tired old clichés by focusing on the human drama.

The film begins explosively with Germans invading Belarus. While all the Russian soldiers are rounded up and marched off, the savvy Chekist (Sergei Garmash) who had just arrived at the Russian headquarters abandons his uniform for hastily donned civilian clothes. As he tells the young sniper, Mitka (Mikhail Yevlanov), soldiers will be shot whereas with civilian clothes perhaps they stand a chance. It’s in this moment, that the Chekist shows his quick thinking and that Mitka accepts him as a leader. Watching the film’s first scenes, there’s the sense that if anyone survives, it’ll be the wily Chekist

As the men are marched off, the Chekist and Mitka form an alliance with Jewish Russian soldier, Livshits (Konstantin Khabenskiy). Another soldier taunts Livshits about being Jewish and summarily strong-arms him into handing over his scanty rations. This scene sets the stage for the idea that the Russians are divided amongst themselves but also underscores the tentative coalition formed between Mitka, Livshits and the Chekist as the dominating, protecting figure.

As luck would have it, the prisoners are marched near to Mitka’s village, and the savvy Chekist realizing that the chance to escape will never be this good again, persuades Livshits and Mitka to escape with him. The trio ends up at Mitka’s village where his father, Ivan (Bogdan Stupka) is the headman. While the plan took the escaped prisoners to the village, it flounders in the face of reality. Germans are swarming all over the countryside looking for the escaped soldiers, but they more or less leave it up to the Russian villagers to hand them over.

Hiding in the barn and with Livshits beginning to succumb to illness, the three soldiers have plenty of time to consider their situation. Mitka happily reunites with his fiancée, Katya (Anna Mikhalkova) while the Chekist ogles Ivan’s woman, Anya (Natalya Surkova). Mitka takes increasingly bold chances to see Katya and the Chekist becomes obsessed with Anya.

Over time the seemingly simple situation becomes increasingly complex while human behavior boils down to its basic elements and loyalties are tested. The Headman Ivan, a former Kulak who escaped from Siberia, is no great lover of the current political situation. To him, the enemy is anyone who threatens his home, his children or his way of life, and there’s an automatic antipathy between the Chekist and Ivan when they recognize their political opposition. Locked in the barn, dependent on the villagers for food, water and shelter, the relationships between the characters are stripped down to the basest level, and yet in spite of the fact that survival underlies all their actions, some of the characters function at a level that includes a notion of brotherhood while other characters seek only their own selfish ends. Just what happens in the village and how this drama plays out is the substance of this excellent Russian film, and by the film’s conclusion ironically two Tsarist gold coins end up trumping everything else.

The film’s heavily biographical screenplay is from Valentin Chernykh, who also wrote Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, and Chernykh modeled the character of Ivan on his grandfather, a man who hid his past as a kulak from Soviet power but who raised his grandson, the screenwriter, as a model Soviet citizen. The film is set in Chernykh’s grandfather’s region, Pskovshchina.

For those who don’t like to watch violence on the screen, the film includes a couple of killing scenes that are pretty brutal. From director Dmitri Meskhiyev.

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Safe Conduct (2002)

“I want to face those shameful times with integrity.”

Safe Conduct is a French film by Bertrand Tavernier that focuses on a difficult period in the history of French cinema, the German occupation of France during WWII. In very typical Tavernier fashion, the film is absolutely fascinating, but cumbersome in spots.

The film begins in March 1943, and Jean Devaire (Jacques Gamblim) is an assistant director who works in Paris for the German run Continental pictures. Although he’s reluctant to work for Continental, he needs employment, and his job, working for director Tourneur (Philippe Morier-Genoud) acts as a cover for his Resistance activities. Right under the nose of his German “masters,” Devaire manages to conduct some very interesting resistance activities, and one section of the film illustrates exactly what Devaire did while he was off of work with a cold.

Writer Jean Aurenche (Denis Podalydes), on the other hand, an incorrigible womanizer, does not integrate into the French cinema industry during the German occupation. Instead he remains on the fringes, looking in while his actress girlfriend consorts with Nazis and various collaborators who are looting the victims of the fascist Petain regime.

French collaboration with their Nazi occupiers remains, understandably, a sticky subject. Tavernier’s film seems to be an attempt to offer an explanation of sorts. Yes, there are those who remain working (even with the Germans in charge), and there are those who refuse to participate. Those who work with the Germans in the French film industry are shown to labour under stressful conditions with the Nazis breathing down their necks while their films are confined to strict rules for content. One of the prevailing arguments for carrying on even under German management is that someone has to ‘save’ French cinema. Given the conditions of wartime (endless allied bombing campaigns and rations) it’s difficult to envision anyone mustering the energy to get out of bed in the morning to go and make a film. But this really happened. WWII raged and some of those within the French film industry carried on as best they could while in the background of the story, we see busloads of Jews leaving Paris to meet their grim fate. For lovers of French cinema, Tavernier offers a fascinating, complex glimpse into a troubled time in the history of French cinema. There’s a lot of French film name-dropping here. For example, in one scene, Clouzet’s film Le Corbeau is mentioned, and a handful of characters briefly debate the meaning of Clouzet’s film and whether or not it was intentionally subversive. In French with subtitles.

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Dr Petiot (1990)

“It’s the age of villains.”

Dr Petiot (Michel Serrault) is a respected French physician living in Paris during the German occupation of WWII. His waiting rooms are packed with patients, but by night he runs a lucrative sideline by claiming to assist wealthy Jews who wish to be smuggled out of France to South America. The Jews who trust Petiot never leave France, and instead they meet their grisly deaths at his hands. In many ways, it’s a perfect set-up. His victims are supposed to enter an underground network Petiot has devised, and even the families of the victims aren’t in a position to contact the authorities with their suspicions.

Petiot is a bizarre character. He treats many of his poor French patients with no thought of payment, and yet at the same time he murders Jews for their money. His anti-Semitism is clear, and he needs no more justification than that. Primarily, however, Petiot is an opportunist. He deals with the French Gestapo, isn’t perturbed by the German Gestapo either, and he also traffics in Morphine. Petiot doesn’t seem to be bothered by the hardships others complain about. During an electricity blackout, for example, he says, “What I like about this war is being plunged into black night.” He seems to be quite comfortable in the dark shadows and tunnels of Paris. At night, he rides around on a bicycle with his cloak billowing out behind him, and there are visual elements of the vampire, Nosferatu here. Some of the anarchic street scenes are remarkable, and the social chaos underscores Petiot’s ability to conduct his murderous activities. The film emphasizes Petiot’s ghoulish side, and the demented, gleeful ceremonial manner in which he conducts each murder. The film is not graphic however, but the story is unavoidably nasty.

Michel Serrault as Petiot is incredible, and his portrayal of this strange character makes the film. Petiot is manic, demented, and explodes into rage at any small frustration. Petiot is also a chameleon with the brains to cover his tracks, and only a veteran actor like Serrault could carry off this complex role with such skill. He’s both amazing and horrifying to watch. For some reason “Dr Petiot”–a French language film with subtitles–seems fated to fade away, so if you’re a fan of French cinema, seek out a copy of this little-known masterpiece while you can. The final scene will haunt you for a long time to come. Directed by Christian de Chalonge.

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The Eye of Vichy (1993)

 “Throwing you into the arms of Communism.”

Claude Chabrol’s documentary, The Eye of Vichy focuses on the French government of Marshal Petain. After the collapse of the French government in 1940, Petain took the lead, and with the war between the Germans and the French essentially over, Petain’s government began collaborating with the Germans. The documentary shows that under the boot of the occupying force, and with Petain’s direction, France became–essentially–an ally of Germany. The documentary consists of newsreel and footage of the times, and gives a strong sense of the level of propaganda coming forth from the Vichy government.

The material is compiled chronologically with very little voiceover. Most of the footage is self-explanatory. Almost immediately following the establishment of the Vichy government, laws came into effect identifying Jews. It’s fascinating to watch the chronology of events and the insidious development of collaboration. Quite frankly it’s rather a shock to realise the degree of cooperation that developed between Petain’s government and the Germans–at first it begins with handing over all German political refugees and registering Jews–to France becoming the greatest supplier of arms and goods to Germany.

Some of the newsreel is simple–reports of allied bombings–with the emphasis on British pilots killing innocent French citizens. But a great deal of the newsreel shows Petain drumming up support for Germany with French volunteers for the Eastern Front. In several scenes, Petain also promotes the shipping of volunteer skilled workers to German factories–the deal was for every 3 skilled workers that were sent to Germany, one POW would be returned to France.

The newsreel regarding the “Jewish Problem” is sickening. While some government footage promises to send 1 million French children to the countryside, Jewish children are rounded up, stuffed on trains and shipped directly to the death camps. One film even shows “The Life of a Jew” and compares them to vermin that need to be eradicated.

The film’s lack of form results in an end product that is less than perfect. In some of the newsreel for example, Petain speaks out against the French resistance, and the execution of 50 French citizens is organised to pressure people to become whistleblowers against the resistance. While similar incidents are revealed in the film, a short explanation of events would really assist in showing the complete sinister machinations behind Petain’s actions. For it is in these actions that Petain is shown as being a fawning German puppet rather than simply being misguided and negotiating the “best deal” that he can for a defeated people.

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Red Cherry (1995)

 “You are fortunate to be a work of art.”

red-cherryRed Cherry from director Daying Ye is based on the true story of ChuChu (Ke-Yu Guo) a 13-year-old Chinese girl who’s attending the International School in Moscow in 1940. ChuChu–who witnessed the public execution of her revolutionary father in China–is no stranger to cruelty and violence when German troops overrun a summer camp in Belarus. ChuChu is just one of several children captured by the Nazis. The film follows the fate of ChuChu, Carl Zhang–a German-Chinese student, and Luo (Xiaoling Xu), a 12-year-old Chinese boy.

ChuChu comes to the attention of a bizarre, one-legged Nazi general, a Dr. Von Dietricht whose hobby is tattooing. Kept as a servant within the walls of a monastery for several years, ChuChu becomes a subject for the Dr’s “artistic” whims.

Since Red Cherry is based on a true story, it seems crass to complain that the story is ugly and unpleasant. However, those watching the film should prepare themselves beforehand for several scenes that show close-ups of people–including children–who get their brains blown out at close quarters. The camera explores the lurid, exploitive machinations of the general in some relentless detail, and it does not try to avoid showing absolute brutality. Yet at the same time, the film also engages in moments of blatant sentimentality and cliched scenes depicting decadence. Consequently, Red Cherry is not a particularly easy or enjoyable film to watch. It’s wrenching, and tragic, but the film also seems to have a lingering fascination for some subjects that borders on lurid exploitation. In Mandarin, Russian and German with English subtitles.

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A Love in Germany (1983)

“I’m only doing my duty.”

A man travels back to his small hometown in Germany after an absence of 40 years. With his teenage son in tow, his goal is to piece together exactly what happened to his mother during WWII. As he tries to talk to villagers and discover the truth, a story unfolds of a tragic love affair between the man’s German mother and a Polish prisoner of war. Their fate becomes the focus of the film, A Love in Germany.

Through flashbacks, the story unfolds of Paulina Kropp (Hanna Schygulla) who runs a small grocery shop while her husband serves in the German army. The villagers use incarcerated Polish prisoners-of-war for unpaid labour. The POWs are subject to strict rules–they are not supposed to live, eat or fraternize with the Germans. Polish POW Stanislaus (Piotr Lysak) sleeps in the stables, and he’s ‘loaned’ out for various tasks. Stanislaus begins doing work for Paulina, and they engage in a steamy affair. In the village, it’s impossible to keep anything secret–and soon the affair is common knowledge.

While A Love in Germany from director Andrzej Wajda is ostensibly the story of a love affair between two people who were supposed to be enemies, the film is much more than that. By retelling the affair, the film subtly examines Germany’s past. When the forbidden affair inevitably comes to the attention of the authorities, ordinary German citizens become involved with irrevocable decisions. What should be an intimate, private matter between two people is dissected, analyzed, and judged according to rules and regulations set forth by Himmler. The question of the “Ayran-ness” of Paulina and Stanislaus will help decide their fate, and neighbours, friends and acquaintances collaborate in a sick system. The fine actor, Armin Mueller-Stahl plays Mayer, a German officer who is out of his moral depth, but consoles himself by following the minutiae set forth in documents regarding interracial couples. Mayer’s underling, Schutze, is a petty bureaucrat given the authority and the uniform of a monstrous system. Based on the novel by Rolf Hochhuth, this excellent film is in Polish with English subtitles.

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