Grading Historical Movies: Helma Sanders-Brahms’s “Germany, Pale Mother” (1980)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The sixth film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Helma Sanders-Brahms’s 1980 Germany, Pale Mother.

Overall grade from 45 students: B

Review One

By Aleah Sexton

Aleah Sexton

Grade:  A-

Germany, Pale Mother, the 1980 West German film directed by Helma Sanders-Brahms, is a riveting post-war depiction of how the lives of civilians, soldiers, and children were negatively impacted by the war. The film highlights destruction, chaos, desentization, and the daily struggle to survive in a world blanketed by trauma. The film follows the life of Lene and her daughter Anna, who is born during an air raid. The audience sees the downward spiral of Lene’s marriage to Hans, who is immediately drafted for refusing to become a member of the Nazi Party. The strained marriage is a reaction of Hans on the frontlines, and his once gentle nature turns to aggression and anger. Lene struggles to raise Anna as they roam the German countryside and experience the destruction the war has brought. The film goes beyond the upheaval during the war, and focuses on coping with life after the fact. Sanders-Brahms shot war outside the frontlines and captured the ripple effect of how the loss from the front affected entire communities back home. German complicity to Nazi indoctrination is another matter the film highlights. Lene does not help a Jewish neighbor in need. Hans does not refuse to kill innocent Polish civilians and French partisans. However, are their stances comparable to the horrific deeds of the Nazis? This question became an issue for all Germans during this time, and the film attempts to create interpretations of how complicit an ordinary civilian could be.

The metaphorical truth the film captures is evident as Lene, Hans, and Anna attempt to piece their lives together as a familial unit after the atrocities each experienced. Based on Robert Rosenstone’s thesis of historical films, I would situate Germany, Pale Mother as a dramatic feature film with some representation of the documentary film, as well. The dramatic film “aims directly at the emotions” and “individuals are at the centre of the historical process”. Germany, Pale Mother certainly created emotional responses from the audience, due to the intensity of the episodes and the individual traumas each character was forced to endure. In terms of the documentary film, this presents “a linear, and moral story, often deals with large topics through the experience of a small group of participants”. Although this film was not directed as a documentary, there was some documentary footage cut into scenes. Germany, Pale Mother signifies a documentary because of the plotline the audience followed. It was centered on three individuals, and their stories could have been reality for thousands of Germans. The pain suffered from Hans and Lene appeared authentic, and the issues they grappled with could be a looming truth for many.

The impact of the film created a conversation about how familial life post-war is truly uprooted from the agony encountered in the midst of national chaos. The audience witnesses the dramatic relational shift between Hans and Lene after Anna’s birth. Lene and Han’s initial attempts to keep the family as a unit is far too unrealistic as they both quietly face their own demons. The viewers watch as suppressed trauma and desensitization from Lene and Hans come to fruition, as suicide seems to be the only option. These internal battles, Sanders-Brahms suggests, affected all Germans after 1945.

Review Two

By Adam Ring

Grade:  A

Helma Sanders-Brahms manages to do something extraordinary in her film – she presents, on surface level, a typical story about a German man having to leave behind his wife as he departs to fight in World War II. The brilliancy happens when this story is examined primarily from the perspective of Lene, his wife back at home. By taking this angle, Sanders-Brahms is able to communicate her central message: war is hard on everyone, but especially difficult for women back home. In fact, they can be the single biggest losers in the end, without ever having stepped foot on the front.

Lene’s startled reaction when she hears Hans is being conscripted into the war is not surprising at all—most wives would respond that way. Quickly, however, the audience learns Hans is not cut out for war like many of his fellow soldiers are—this can be seen when he expresses incredibly shock and sadness after witnessing innocent civilians being gunned down. When he returns home on a brief leave, the plot quickly changes. Hans, initially seen as someone fairly carefree and lighthearted, questions his wife’s pureness after accusing her of cheating on him. Even though he quickly takes it back, that initial statement sets up a downward-spiraling narrative that will slowly lead to Lene’s mental and physical decline.

As the movie progresses, Lene and her daughter Anna begin to suffer more and more. Most children grow up struggling to remember their earliest birthday; for Anna, she witnesses her own mother being gang raped by two drunken men. While she is much too young to process the full extent of the rape, the fact remains that an event like this permanently alters a child, and they are left to deal with the lingering memories for the rest of their lives. A theme of trauma after trauma begins to emerge—and the most interesting part is that most of the trauma witnessed is not caused by guns or tanks, like so many other war movies depict.

This family is like a ticking time bomb: each day becomes progressively more stressful until the entire situation collapses on itself.  At the very end of the movie, in response to Lene locking herself in the restroom, Anna offers the single most profound and revealing statement in the entire movie: “It was a long time before Lene opened the door. Sometimes I think she’s still behind it. And I’m still standing outside, and she’ll never come out to me”. In this case, the physical door is a metaphor for the illusionary door Lene is casting between herself and Anna. This is a textbook example of a mother completely giving up on life.

All of this is troubling to watch, and many may question why a director would even begin to make a movie that ends in such misery. The answer can be found by examining the impact Sanders-Brahms wants the audience to leave with. Why does any of this matter? In essence, the purpose of this movie is to show an often untold narrative of war—that being the toll it has on mothers and children. The director does this brilliantly. While the movie is sometimes hard to watch, the way it unfolds is purposeful, and each scene naturally leads to the next. This film tackles it all—it contains an important message, emotional scenes, real-world applicability, and a fearless exposure of the true terrors those left behind at home are forced to cope with.

Review Three

By Megan Drown

Grade:  B-

As if the Nazi Party and the sins of the German people weren’t abhorrent enough in contemporary films about World War II, Germany, Pale Mother serves as a testament to the revoltingly passive nature of two apolitical Germans during the war and their pathetic inability to come to terms with their complicity in genocide during the post-war reconstruction of their Fatherland. Opening on a sinister reflection of a Nazi flag while the camera pans out to reveal two men rowing on a river, the narrator asserts “I can remember nothing about the time before my birth. No blame can be attached to me for events before my birth. I didn’t exist then.” While establishing her innocence in the face of the horror the film would later reveal, the narrator’s words haunt the audience while the ensuing dialogue between the two men affirm their perverse nature.

A woman, Helene (Lene), and the protagonist-to-be is catcalled by the two men as she walks next to the river. After harassing her and watching her fend off a menacing dog, the two men – Hans and Ulrich – admire her from afar.

“She didn’t scream,” Hans says.

“A real German woman,” Ulrich replies.

“With black hair?”

“Pure Aryan. Her family is all blonde. She’s the only one with black hair. Seven beautiful sisters.”

Immediately the ideal of German beauty and racial purism characterizes the attitudes of the male-dominant German society.  Their complicity, and in fact accountability, for the extermination of Jewish people is undeniable, even in spite of scenes in which Hans, a soldier of the Wehrmacht, is adversely affected by his acts of violence against Jews later in the movie. However, the complicity of women in creating and maintaining the systematic extermination of Jews evokes a more ambiguous reaction from many in the post-war era.

Normative gender roles called upon women to be complacent, unquestioning, and supportive of their German husbands in Nazi Germany by taking responsibility for the home and raising the children while their husbands were off at war. This film certainly portrays a passive woman, Helene, who marries Hans, and embraces her role as a German wife and mother. She unquestioningly supports Hans as he is drafted into the Wehrmacht, in spite of her apprehension of the Nazi party, and she fulfills her role as a mother as she gives birth to a child and raises her throughout the horror and destruction of war. She also does not object to the arrest of her Jewish neighbor and complacently accepts the violence and paranoia of her husband when he returns from war to visit wife and daughter.

While the film largely serves as a mundane reflection of the tragic experiences of women during Nazi Germany and post-war Germany, it does not fail to express women’s complicity in the war and the consequences they must suffer because of it. These consequences, perhaps, culminate in the final scene of the movie, in which Helene, half-paralyzed, addicted to alcohol, and emphatically depressed, tries to kill herself. Though locked in the bathroom, until, at last, she re-emerges to embrace her sobbing child, the film ends on an incredibly somber note as one wonders if Helene and her daughter, Anna, might have been better off if Helene had, indeed, killed herself.

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