A Woman in Berlin
Director Max Färberböck's A Woman in Berlin is a thoroughly unpleasant experience--and it should be. Based on the anonymous memoir of the same name--first published in English in 1954, and was republished in 2003, when it became a best-seller--it follows one woman's harrowing survival in Berlin at the close of World War II. At the time, late spring and early summer of 1945, the Soviet Union Red Army has pushed well into the city, heading toward the Reichstag. Berlin is in shambles, its streets bombed out, bodies frequently lying about, and the remaining inhabitants--mostly women and older men--left to fend for themselves. They run from one squat to the next, hide in cellars when tanks come down the street, and, in general, try not to do anything to get killed. As one remarks to another when hiding, if the Russians treat them the way the Nazi army treated the Russians during its push into Russia, there won't be a German left at the war's end.
One of those women is the educated, sophisticated unnamed narrator (Nina Hoss), intelligent and worldly enough to recognize her situation. The wife of a Nazi officer, she is a former journalist who speaks French and Russian, has lived in Paris and London, and confesses at the movie's opening that she believed in what the German army was fighting for. In these scenes, Hoss is a stunning, glamorous blonde living high on Germany's victories; in Berlin, she--and the rest of the Berliners around her--are dirty from near constant flying debris and always looking out for whatever threat is next. For the women, that is the Red Army's men, who rape them without any fear of their officers punishing them. As in, when two female friends see each other on the street one day, the question they exchange is, "How often?"
Färberböck and Hoss pull off a rather remarkable feat here. Färberböck has handled difficult WWII-era subject matter before in his 1999 Aimée and Jaguar, and with Berlin he succeeds in exploring yet another aspect of such a well-covered world event: what happened to German women during wartime. He creates a setting that is claustrophobic, stark, and perpetually tense, and without resorting to visceral battlefield scenes, crafts the most uncomfortable WWII-era movie since Joseph Vilsmaier's 1993 Stalingrad.
Hoss delivers a masterfully fraught performance. A woman faced with the choice of being subjected to rape by whomever, whenever, or giving herself to a high-ranking officer who might protect her, she chooses the latter, latching onto a major (Yevgeni Sidkhin) who manages to complicate her life even more. Hoss' character treads lightly when trying to communicate with the Soviet ranks, the start of every conversation a potential to veer into horror. Hoss supplies a stark voice-over to certain scenes, as if reading the pages of a diary, and they're delivered in a sort of casual detachment that sounds like a person watching herself, which infuses some of her comments with a disturbing casualness, as when she observes, "However, my Russian is getting better."
Perhaps unavoidably, A Woman in Berlin doesn't so much resolve as run its course. If that means it doesn't reach a narratively satisfying conclusion, it's only because it's so austerely focused on this brief moment in time toward a war's end when there are no rules, personal survival is paramount, and nobody is innocent.