Sunday, August 09, 2009
A Note on EINE FRAU IN BERLIN (German; 2008)
The annals of cinema are replete with many, very many, "war" fims -- although, given the focus of most of these, it would be more accurate to call them "battlefield" films, seeking as they to do to dominate the audience's attention with bullets and high-octane drama. The human cost of war is certainly represented, but almost always by the blood of soldiers, and the tears of those left behind at the home-front. Given how common it is, how routine in times of war, rape has been grossly ignored in war cinema -- one never wants to admit "our" boys did it, and, likewise, one never wants to admit it was done to "our" women. It is thus not surprising that the diary on which director Max Farberbock's superb Eine Frau in Berlin (A Woman in Berlin) is based, about one woman's experiences as the victorious Soviet troops unleashed an orgy of rape on German women in the wake of their 1945 occupation of Eastern Berlin, caused quite a storm when it was published in Germany nearly half a century ago. Not only was the mass violation of German women by vengeful Soviet troops (seeking retribution for the carnage of the Eastern Front) itself humiliating, but the unnamed author's account of the ways in which she and other women adjusted to this mode of life, tried to reach an accommodation with the situation in order to make do, was also seen as somehow shameful. The women the author ("Anonyma") wrote of were seen as somehow shameless, almost as if it were more dishonorable to survive than to die. Stung by the criticism, Anonyma never identified herself, and ensured that her book was not re-issued as long as she was alive.
A Woman in Berlin thus performs two valuable functions. First, it reminds us of the centrality of rape in war, implicitly underscoring that this lacuna in other war films renders them deficient. Second, Farberbock aims to redeem Anonyma from the reception her diary's publication was greeted with. No-one could come away from this film feeling that the woman at its core had dishonored herself in any way; on the contrary, Farberbock and Nina Hoss (who plays "Anonyma") have given us one of the most memorable female characters I have ever seen on celluloid. It had to have been quite a job essaying this role and managing to ensure that the residue was one of admirable strength, not merely pathos, and Hoss' is surely one of the performances of the year. In sum, this film's, and Hoss', exploration of the wretched ambiguity of, and the steel required to survive, the sort of situation Anonyma finds herself in, where rape isn't just an ever-present possibility but a daily routine, a routine that has been excised from most other war films, can be called many things, but above all else, it must be called ethical.
Not to mention that this is a fantastic film, one that never releases the audience from its grip. Initially, our attention is engaged by Anonyma's attempts to remain safe; when that proves impossible, we are drawn into her cat-and-mouse efforts to salvage some security from the disaster around her. And "around her" is the word: no matter what happens to her, Hoss' Anonyma persuasively assures us she can handle it, "as long as it comes from without." These efforts bring her into contact with the local Russian commander Major Andrei (Yevgeni Sidikhin), who is initially unsympathetic but ultimately intrigued by Anonyma. They begin sleeping with each other because of Anonyma's need to safeguard herself from random rapes by attaching herself to a suitably powerful man, although, later on, tenderness and mutual respect develops. The relationship is shot through with ambiguity, distilled in a chilling voice-over by Hoss: "I cannot say the Major rapes me," Anonyma muses, "but I am at his disposal." The disconnect, between the impersonal politics of a conflict seemingly raging millions of miles away, and the all-too-personal destruction that conflict causes in the lives of the persons depicted here (including, it must be said, the soldiers, two or three of whom are mentioned as having lost everything at the hands of the German army earlier on in the war, or as having witnessed unspeakable atrocities that have scarred them for life), builds an insoluble tension into the very fabric of this film. It isn't often that a film this self-consciously weighty is so very interesting; but Farberbock's film is anything but run-of-the-mill.
The war-zone that Berlin had become by April 1945 is well-captured here in the debris and wreckage lying around; more accurately, in the ubiquity of this waste, which pervades almost every outdoor shot. Some of the outdoor sets, however, could have been less stagey, although the sullied interiors, desperately seeking to preserve some traces of their former dignity, and constantly threatened, are superbly done. In the final analysis, however, and with due credit to the film's director for enabling her, one has to end by returning to Hoss' performance. There is no false step in this mesmerizing turn, but one scene in particular captures for me the craft Hoss brings to her role. A Russian soldier spits on Anonyma's face as he mounts her. The camera rests on her face, and we see her trying to fight off the urge to spit back at him, her face creased with the hate and fear, the drive to fight back. Ultimately, Anonyma's innate practicality -- a practicality that is essentially a reflection of her strength of will and unshakeable dignity, not of a prosaic temperament -- takes over, and we see the furrows in her face smooth out. She won't be fighting this drunken soldier, she won't be throwing it all away. Hardly any film has done heroism better.