A Woman in Berlin
2008, NR, 131 min. Directed by Max Färberböck. Starring Nina Hoss, Evgeny Sidikhin, Irm Hermann, Rüdiger Vogler, Ulrike Krumbiegel.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 9, 2009
"War changes our world," the protagonist, an anonymous Berliner, tells her Russian "protector" midway through this grim account of rape amid the ruins. "Love is no longer what it once was." Indeed. Rape becomes a brutal piece of heavy ordnance in war, a way for the occupiers to crush the spirits of the occupied and to impose, through the aforementioned act of so-called "protection" (either not raping or raping with the psychologically scarring nonconsensual consent endemic when the victim's life is at stake), some sort of punishment or fear-based order on a conquered populace – or, worse, as a leisure-time activity on conqueror's part. Based on an anonymous diary first published 15 years after the fall of the Reichstag and the Third Reich, A Woman in Berlin was met with outrage and considered to be "an affront to the honor of [German women]," explains a final text. The anonymous author then withdrew her horrific memoir from any and all publication until her death in 2002. As directed by Färberböck (who also helmed the equally powerful but considerably more intimate Aimée & Jaguar in 1999), this is Pillaging and Raping 101, with an eye toward neither the exploitative nor the sentimentally overblown. Instead, A Woman in Berlin is like a tour through the blast-cratered psyche of two colliding cultures, each with its own nightmarish tales to tell or acts of violence to experience. The mostly nameless Russian victors – exhausted, filthy, prone to lengthy bouts of alcohol- and trauma-fueled barbarism – take out their aggressions on the surviving female citizenry of Berlin, here personified by Hoss in a supremely complex and modulated performance. After the initial fall of Berlin, feeding oneself became the most important item on any day's agenda, which led, as it still does and probably always will, to the forced bartering of bodies and souls for physical sustenance. Hoss' anonymous character eventually finds a small amount of pseudo-safety with a Russian major (Sidikhin), who carries his own terrible memories along with him even as he inflicts fresh new nightmares on others. Historically accurate down to the cartloads of potatoes the Red Army hauls along and sporting a grittily realistic production design that rivals or bests that of Joseph Vilsmaier's epically shattered Stalingrad cityscape, this is that rarest of wartime dramas: an intimate, sorrowful glimpse into the heart and loins of the hellish aftermath of war.