Friday, April 3, 2009

A Woman in Berlin

This was originally published in Sadie magazine.

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Sadly, World War II seems like cinematic roadkill these days. World cinema, especially Hollywood, treads over so much of the subject year after year with story after story that there really shouldn’t be much of the narrative carcass left to peck. So much glossy exposure to any event is bound to desensitize viewers.

Though I’d glanced at the corpse beforehand, watching A Woman in Berlin truly brought this idea to my attention. My cynical, jaded eyes made me think it was another dime a dozen World War II picture the first time I saw it. However, upon my second viewing, I realized my mistake and acknowledged that it’s actually one of the more distinctive films to be released about the fray in many years.

One of the last taboos of the Second World War occurred as it was waning down in 1945. The Russians took hold of Germany for seven months and made Berlin their headquarters. Unfortunately, the Russians also demonstrated their clout by forcing the remaining German women, children, and elderly to do their bidding.

Though it’s hard to estimate, it’s been said that thousands, perhaps even millions, of German women were raped during this short Russian occupation. One of them, a worldly journalist who calls herself Anonyma, wrote her experiences in a diary that was later published across the globe. She is one of the few surviving women to ever tell this story because, according to the film and press notes, it affronts German women to even mention this time period. A Woman in Berlin is an adaptation of her personal saga.

Before the war, the German-born Anonyma (played by Nina Hoss) lived a life of cultural refinery as an educated writer. She used her fluency in five languages to report on stories from around the world. Both her diary and the film itself utilize her journalistic instincts to present her story in an unsentimental, objective fashion. There’s no apple pie Americana or tragic GI romance to make us feel for the characters—just realistic human reasoning for us to connect with and understand. The romance between Anonyma and the Russian officer is seen purely as solace and not as the end-all-be-all romantic awakening like it is in films like Pearl Harbor and Black Book (Zwartboek). Despite the brutality she endures, Anonyma never sees herself as a victim. Why should we?

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In exchange for bodily security and a smidgen of power, Anonyma and the other women in her band of generally nameless pioneers prostitute themselves to the highest-ranking Russian officers. Though the movie entertains a World War II movie cliché through Anonyma’s relationship to her officer, the filmmakers don’t make it the focal point of her journey.

The film’s strongest scenes occur when Anonyma and the other afflicted women sit around and converse about their lives. Without shame or remorse, they candidly talk and even laugh about how many times they’ve been raped, the effects of syphilis, and their fears for Germany after the war is over. By excluding men from these scenes, the women are able, probably for the only time in their lives, to discuss their situation without feeling ashamed or disgraced. These parts of the movie are more harrowing than any battle scene ever could be.

Much like Fassbinder’s Maria in The Marriage of Maria Braun and Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus, the anonymous, enigmatic Anonyma is a resilient German heroine who demands survival at any cost. The unsentimental view with which she observes and writes about her current circumstances also applies to her fearless persona. In more than one scene, she gallantly walks up to a hoard of catcalling, threatening Russian officers and demands that attention be paid to the rape crisis. While she’s met with outright hostility and callous attitudes, it doesn’t stop her from trying again and fighting back. Even without a real name, Anonyma resonates because her mission for survival is so direct, hard-boiled, and sincere.

German filmmaker Max Färberböck, famous for his highly acclaimed Aimée & Jaguar, is devoted to portraying the situation fairly and accurately. For the most part, he does not present the Russian officers as faceless monsters or the women as nameless victims or statistics (which makes the plentiful rape scenes even more traumatic to watch). Though Färberböck clearly sides with the women in the film, he also creates an underlying political ambiguity between all of the characters. The movie is neutral and sympathetic to both German and Russian beliefs. It never takes the easy route by exploiting the circumstances for a political agenda.

Aside from the brief, generic battle scenes on the streets of Berlin, the film soars in articulating Anonyma’s inspiring endurance tale. After her book was met with an astounding amount of controversy, Anonyma refused to take credit for her work and demanded that her real name never be printed, even after her death. To this day, her book is seen as the pivotal source for information about the Russian’s stay in 1945 Germany.

A story like this could never really have a happy ending, but Anonyma and lots of other women survived the ordeal and quietly rebuilt their lives from the bottom-up. Anonymously or not, Anonyma bravely spoke against injustice when nobody else would. I can only hope that she used her objective reasoning to recognize what an impact she made in the world by sharing her experiences as both a rape and war survivor.

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