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Film Review

A Woman in Berlin

When the Russians surrounded, then invaded Berlin in April, 1945, fierce fighting raged for a month. It is hard to comprehend the scale and ferocity of the fighting. Hitler ordered the German Army to resist to the end, and they did, but virtually no preparations for civilians had been taken. There was virtually no food, few medical supplies, and little water. After several weeks of intensive shelling by hundreds of Russian guns, the Russians began their attack. Over 300,000 Russians and an equal number of Germans, soldiers and civilians, died in the month long battle, Hitler killed himself in his bunker on April 30th, and Germany surrendered shortly afterward. The Russians, irregulars, as well as regular army troops, occupied what remained of the city. After four years of war, and the deaths of literally millions of Russians, including many civilians murdered, and much of western Russia destroyed, the Russians were intent on revenge. Inexplicably, the German authorities had stockpiled huge quantities of liquor, which the Russian troops found. This fueled the lust and the view that German women were war loot. Reliable estimates are that at least 100,000 German women were raped in Berlin alone. Many women were raped multiple times, and even young teenagers were not safe. Husbands and children were often witnesses. It was a hell on earth, but was generally ignored by the German press.

In 1959 a German firm published a diary kept by a female journalist, who spoke Russian as a result of an assignment in Moscow, and lived through the horror in Berlin. She insisted on anonymity. The book, Eine Frau in Berlin, was met with outraged criticism, because it was felt that it "dishonored" all German women. And although also published in English, it was largely ignored until republished in 2005. Now, Max Farberbock has produced a powerful, unflinching, and accurate chronicle of that time, taken directly from the journalist's (still anonymous) diary. Much of it is narrated by the author, clearly a good writer. The film opens with the sound of artillery and fighting. People run through streets filled with debris and bodies, into a basement. They are hungry and terrified. Most fighting stops in the neighborhood, and they soon hear Russian voices. Russian soldiers come into the basement, look around menacingly, and leave. The protagonist, the journalist, played by the great Nina Hoss, crawls out of the basement into the street, and finds it filled with Russian soldiers looking at her. Other soldiers begin grabbing women, dragging them off, and raping them. The journalist, whose name is never spoken or revealed, is raped repeatedly in the first few weeks. In a very brave gesture of defiance, she confronts the battalion commander and tells him it is his duty to protect the women. He is contemptuous of her and says that all of his men are healthy. She has been able to move into a large, semi-ruined apartment, owned by a widow, who trades her self for a small amount of bacon. The widow holds parties where Russian officers bring food in exchange for sex with the other women living in the apartment. And one of the officers is the battalion commander, Andrej. Hoss's character is determined that she will never again let herself be forcibly raped, so decides to make an accommodation with a senior officer. He recognizes the trade and often visits her, at the same time protecting the building from the depredations of his men. Life improves somewhat, at least there is some food, but all are at the mercy of the Russians. There is a chilling scene where a group of women are gathered around the kitchen table, exchanging tales of rape, with black humor. They are determined to survive, at any cost. No one could blame them, except German men, who are humiliated by what is happening to their wives and daughters. The film follows one couple living in the building, and the consequences of this tension. There is so much more here, with glimpses of great courage and cowardice, and that determination to live. And filled with great narrative. There is a surprising and moving end that takes a few minutes to appreciate.

Farberbock has given us a very important and a very great film. It is brutal, powerful, tension filled, and is as authentic an account of the initial occupation of Berlin as possible to do on film. The acting is phenomenal; even minor characters. Nina Hoss is extraordinary, and surely playing the role for which she will always be remembered. The cinematography is also outstanding, whether the battle scenes or the frames filled with a character's face. There are rapids cuts, off center shots, shots filled with scores of people, and in general very interesting camerawork. There are Russian and German songs, but most of the music is strikingly similar to a Philip Glass score. A Woman in Berlin will easily be one of the ten best films that I have seen this year, and most likely a Best Foreign Film nominee. This is a film that really should be seen on the large screen. Playing now at the Presidio (Chestnut Street) but may only stay through next week. A great, great film that you will never forget.

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