Grading Historical Movies: Max Färberböck’s “A Woman in Berlin” (2008)

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 eleventh film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Max Färberböck’s “A Woman in Berlin” (2008).

 

Overall grade from 45 students:  A

 

Review One

By Alison Perelman

Grade:  A

“A Woman in Berlin” (2008), based on an anonymously published diary, tells the story of a woman hiding with other women when the Soviet Red Army invades Germany at the end of World War II. The women must endure war-torn living conditions and the soldiers’ sexual advances, wondering when it will end.

The film is an effective representation of the largely untold stories of mass rape committed by Soviet soldiers against German women, as well as of the more general position of different people in wartime. Due to its source material, the film is accurate in its portrayal of setting, events, and behavioral reactions. It also conveys a lot of emotional truth because of the nature of the film’s focus.

The pacing of scenes, lighting, and costuming do well in setting the tone of the film and showing time passing. When the Red Army arrives, there is chaos that then subsides into routine. It is bleak and repetitive. Though the narrative may not always be exciting, it is accurate to what life was like in that situation. Several scenes are uncomfortable to watch — obviously because of the content, but even more so as a result of the camera angles used for perspective.

It’s often said that history is told by the victors; however, “A Woman in Berlin” is the opposite — told by and about German women. It offers a significantly different narrative of victimhood. While the Germans were the aggressors in World War II, their civilians suffered unjust treatment and casualties as well. And yet, there is also an important portrayal of strength through the main character. She is a victim, but uses intelligence and what little autonomy she has to make hard decisions to survive.

The film doesn’t forget the role of men and soldiers, even the Germans. “A Woman in Berlin” is most effective in depicting the nuances of both sides. War crimes committed by Germans against the Soviets are recognized via dialogue, and members of the Red Army are shown engaging in heinous acts too. Meanwhile, characters from both nations are humanized. The range of behavior is (sometimes unfortunately) accurate, and conveys the complicated reactions to such uncertain situations.

Review Two

By Madeline Phaby

Grade:  A+

A Woman in Berlin is a 2008 German film adaptation of an anonymous woman’s diary from the closing days of World War II.  The film gives a hauntingly honest account of the widespread rape committed by the Soviet Army against the women in Berlin, as well as the difficult decisions made by the protagonist in order to survive. Although the movie is incredibly brutal to watch at certain points, much of its immense historical merit lies in its ability to humanize both the Nazi sympathizers in Berlin and the Soviet Red Army. The viewer is made to feel sympathy towards both sides and conflicted as to who was “right” and who was “wrong” in their actions, which is precisely what makes it such a thought-provoking film.

When the Red Army first arrives in Berlin, all hell breaks loose. Soldiers begin to rape women indiscriminately, and the protagonist is not spared from this widespread pandemonium. After being violated by numerous men and harassed by just as many, she decides she’s had enough and begs the commanding officer for protection from his soldiers in exchange for total control over her body. The major eventually falls for her due to her beauty and sophistication, and she and the other women therefore are protected against the other men. Although the protagonist’s situation of being completely at the major’s disposal is far from ideal, it is certainly better than being passed from soldier to soldier. However, the major is transferred after refusing to kill the protagonist when it is discovered that she had been hiding German soldiers in her apartment. Shortly after, her husband returns from war, but is extremely cold towards her because he viewed her as ‘soiled’ due to being raped by Soviets. The narrative ends with the protagonist wondering how she is to go on without the major, a fittingly ambiguous ending to a morally ambiguous film.

The protagonist’s pragmatic approach to the unfortunate circumstances she is trapped in makes her a very brave and admirable character, which is a bit difficult for viewers to grapple with since it is strongly insinuated that she is a supporter of Hitler and his fascist regime. For example, she states at the beginning of her narration that she returned to Germany at the end of the war after traveling abroad because she “wanted to be a part of it”. While the viewer is clearly meant to feel sympathy towards the protagonist and the other German women being raped – since simply supporting an ideology certainly does not warrant being raped – it is also almost impossible for us to vilify the entire Red Army. Certain characters, namely the major and the Mongolian, are generally portrayed as good-natured, and another soldier describes how the children in his village were tortured and killed by the Germans. Because of the atrocities committed by both sides featured in the film, the only definitive conclusion that can be made is that in war, all are victims and perpetrators just the same.

Review Three

By Blake Mullenix

Grade:  A

A Woman in Berlin is unique in its approach to World War II, especially in regards to
German victimhood and its portrayal of Soviet soldiers. This film presents a complex story that
may make audiences feel conflicted about certain groups by the end.

A Woman in Berlin shows a range of Soviet soldiers. There are more stereotypical, beast-like Soviets who violently rape German women during their occupation in Berlin. Alternatively, there are
characters such as the Major who are more compassionate towards the Berliners. Interestingly
enough, the film breaks down the idea that soldiers always see their opponents as subhuman
through the Major, too. It is revealed that the Major’s wife was hung by Nazis, and whereas
usually this would make a soldier revengeful, the Major is different in that he protects the
anonymous main character. He even appears to love her at points in the film.

This film also looks at the complex nature of victimhood and being a victimizer.
Throughout this film, Anonymous, the main character, and other German women are repeatedly
raped, as was the case during the Soviet occupation. This undoubtedly makes audiences
empathize with these women are they are victims of war crimes. While the film does make these
German women out to be victims, it does not, however, shy away from pointing out their
complicity in the war crimes committed by Nazis at this time. At the beginning of the film,
Anonymous mentions how she came back to Germany because she wanted to be a part of it, in
reference to the then popular Nazi party. Later in the film, Anonymous admits to knowing about
atrocities that Wehrmacht abroad were committing, thus furthering her (and others) complicity
within the Nazi system. This film presents the idea that people can both be victims and
victimizers.

Furthermore, A Woman in Berlin helps one understand that someone can be a victim
without their victimizing be excused or absolved. Anonymous even acknowledges the
complexities presented by saying that if the Soviets had done to the Germans what the Germans
had done to the Soviets, then they (being Berliners) would have been killed during the Red
Army’s occupation. Whereas many films will take a clear stance on who are the “good guys” and
who are the “bad guys,” A Woman in Berlin portrays both good and bad within each side. A
Woman in Berlin offers no concrete answers and leaves audiences to ponder over what it means
to be a victim and if being a victim absolves one from their victimizing.

 

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