Review: 'A Woman in Berlin'

This haunting glimpse of women in wartime is based on a diary written by a journalist, who was one of the thousands raped in the wake of the Red Army invasion.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Sometimes a movie based on true events is forceful out of all proportion to its middling presentation. The German film "A Woman in Berlin," starring Nina Hoss, not infrequently summons up Hollywood at its most overwrought, but it tells a powerful story, and it is that power that keeps you watching even when all else fails to deliver.

Directed by Max Färberböck ("Aimée and Jaguar"), "A Woman in Berlin" is based on a published diary, subtitled "Eight Weeks in the Conquered City," that was written anonymously by a former journalist and photographer who was one of thousands of women raped in Berlin – some estimates are as high as 100,000 – in the wake of the 1945 Red Army invasion. The book was denounced and virtually banned upon its publication in Germany in 1959, five years after its appearance in an English translation, and its author, known only as "Anonyma," vowed it would only be republished after her death. The new edition, which became an international success, came out in 2001.

Anonyma was one of the few German women to report on the rapes and the ways in which the women succeeded in surviving, often by aligning themselves sexually with a "protector." Anonyma's honesty earned her a special opprobrium in her homeland. (One German writer denounced her for "besmirching the honor of German women.")

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Färberböck does an acceptable job of depicting the bombed-out maelstrom that was Berlin at that time. The landscape verges on the surreal, which is certainly how it must have been experienced by the Germans, mostly women, who were left behind in the wake of the war. But the movie fails to indicate how this everyday inferno might have seemed equally surreal to the Russian occupiers. The Red Army brigades, with few exceptions, are shown to be loud and bullying bears, ready to rape and guzzle at the slightest whim.

The big standout from the crowd is Andrej (Evgeny Sidikhin), a high-ranking Russian major whom Anonyma (Hoss) seeks out and with whom she shares a relationship blending humiliation, ardor, and mutual respect. Andrej is a stalwart military man but he has a respect for European culture and philosophy. Because Anonyma is worldly, and speaks some Russian, he treats her as something of a prize rather than simply as the spoils of war.

Still, Andrej remains a cipher. This may be unavoidable, since the film is told essentially from Anonyma's point of view. But since their union is central to the movie, it's doubly disappointing that only half of the relationship is explored with any depth. Hoss's performance captures Anonyma's wary survivalist instincts, her acceptance of debasement as the new norm. More difficult, she registers Anonyma's confused and ongoing attachment to Andrej.

Anonyma stands out in "A Woman in Berlin" not only because of her ragged nobility but also because, alas, Färberböck has surrounded her with a gaggle of Berliners who seem right out of Central Casting. The residents of her damaged apartment building include a tough widow, a dotty bookseller, a refugee girl in hiding, a pair of chatty sisters, and a liquor kingpin. It's difficult to feel much empathy for any of them because they all seem to be preening before the footlights. The stench of greasepaint within that apartment is a lot stronger than the stench of war.

There is another large defect in "A Woman in Berlin." Because Färberböck is so intent on aligning our sympathies with the German victims, he doesn't elaborate on the reasons for their victimization. He doesn't want to alienate us by emphasizing Germans who espoused the Nazi cause. A more complex movie would have waded into these troubled waters with gusto instead of evasiveness. Grade: B-

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