National Consciousness in Crisis: Assessing Perceptions of Guilt, Heroism, Femininity, and the Myth of the “Good Soldier” in German World War II Cinema

By Paige Ross

“Why do the oppressors praise you everywhere, / The oppressed accuse you?

The plundered, Point to you with their fingers, but / The plunderer praises the system

That was invented in your house! / Whereupon everyone sees you

Hiding the hem of your mantle which is bloody / With the blood

Of your best sons.”

“Deutschland,” Bertolt Brecht (1933)

In the scope of the Second World War, perhaps no nation underwent such a severe and pronounced identity crisis following the Allied victory in Europe, than Germany. The country had been plunged into a dictatorial fascist system with the promise of better times to come economically, politically, and globally. This fascist experiment failed miserably. In the wake of Germany’s surrender and the uncovering of the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, the nation was forced to grapple with its people’s actions prior to the war as well as during. The difficulties Germany faced in rendering judgement on its people can be seen as a chronological evolution in German films about World War II. Through each film, various elements of the German past, consciousness, and national identity are revealed to the viewer. The Bridge (1959), Germany Pale Mother (1980), Stalingrad (1993), and A Woman in Berlin (2008), all seek to confront or deny various aspects of German victimhood, femininity or masculinity, and heroism in war.

Bernhard Wicki’s 1959 film The Bridge, tells the story of seven young boys in a small German town as the American forces advance during the last year of World War II. The seven are drafted into the German army in the final desperate days of the war in Europe and tasked with defending a bridge outside of their small town. Each of the seven boys has a distinct and particular storyline and each represent a unique facet of the German population at the time. Taken collectively, they represent a cross-section of German society in the latter years of World War II, and allow for class lines to vanish as all become intertwined in their struggle for life. The film is a story of friendship, brotherhood, and the loss of innocence that inevitably occurs in a time of war. The Bridge also depicts the generational gap in the adherence to or disregard of the nation’s rallying cry, “For the Fuhrer, the People, and the Fatherland!” For older soldiers, the men who likely saw the destruction, horror, and death of the First World War; this fight is becoming clearly hopeless. For the youngest in Germany, likely not even born during World War I, this war is a valiant struggle for the country and its ideals, a source of inspiration and a fight that can be won.

Above all, The Bridge provides a raw commentary on the pointlessness of the enterprise of war, and in doing so, offers a subtle criticism of not only war in general, but the insignificance of the hopeless war Germany carried on in the last months and weeks of the conflict. While the film comments on the sacrifice of the youngest boys in Germany as an act of desperation sent from military leaders at the top, the film dodges any mention of or depiction of policies or practices pertaining to the Holocaust. In that sense, while The Bridge may effectively comment on the evils of war as an enterprise, and even the practice in Germany of sending boys as young as fifteen to the front in the war’s waning days, it fails to provide a well-rounded criticism of Germany in the larger context of the atrocities committed by Germans in the war.

While The Bridge depicts the pointless enterprise of war, and especially the senseless loss of life (particularly among the youth) that occurs in a time of violent conflict, Helma Sanders-Brahms’ 1980 film Germany Pale Mother, provides an obvious commentary on the narrative of “German victimhood.” In addition to critiquing the “victimhood” narrative, Germany Pale Mother focuses intensively on the feminine struggle unique to war, by following the life and hardships of Lene, a woman married to a German soldier. During the war, Lene is forced to flee her home after it is destroyed in an air raid, and many of the most gripping sequences involve her journey on foot to safety, often in adverse weather conditions, carrying all of her remaining belongings and her only child on her back.

Germany Pale Mother is starkly unique in that it captures the embattled essence of the feminine experience during a time of hyper-masculinity and widespread violence. One of the most powerful sequences in the film occurs after Lene is raped by two Allied soldiers and her daughter Anna walks to where she lies. Lene calmly tells her, “The victors’ right, little girl. They rob and take women.” This single scene perhaps more than any in other in Germany Pale Mother addresses Lene’s understanding (and perhaps the broader understanding of German women) of her complicity in the war and its effects. Germany Pale Mother is a valuable work of history in that it not only acknowledges the strength and fortitude of German women during and after the war, but that it also addresses that these strong women were a part of a larger system that caused immense suffering and widespread atrocity.

Nearly a decade and a half later, Joseph Vilsmaier’s 1993 film Stalingrad, moved in a completely opposite direction in terms of addressing German complicity in the war and its tragedies. Against the backdrop of the so-called historian’s debate, in which academics in the 1980s began to question how Germany and its soldiers should be portrayed and remembered in the larger legacy of World War II, the film is deeply troubling. Stalingrad takes a sympathetic stance on the German soldiers of the 6th Army fighting in the Soviet Union, even as some of Germany’s atrocities in the USSR are depicted. In a further attempt to convey the main protagonists as purely good men fighting for love of country, Stalingrad creates obvious rifts and differences between the authority figures who give the orders and the “average” soldiers who obey them. The film paints the image of the top tier officers as stereotypically evil and callous, while giving the ordinary soldiers redeeming characteristics.

In addition to illustrating a sympathetic picture of the German soldiers as they struggle for their lives against the brutal elements of Soviet winter and battle, the film also conveniently begins in a time frame that excludes the atrocities committed by the advancing Wehrmacht in various parts of Belorussia. As a work of history or historical truth, Stalingrad is extremely problematic. And while the film is a gripping work that illustrates a raw side of war, it fails to provide acknowledgement of the evils committed by German troops in the Soviet Union. In failing to address the truth which runs counter to the “clean Wehrmacht” and the “good German soldier” myths, Stalingrad points to the selectivity of the histories being told in Germany during the time, and the desire to adhere to an untarnished legacy of the nation’s soldiers in World War II.

The cycle of addressing morally ambiguous elements of war as well as femininity and the unique circumstances women face comes full circle in Max Färberböck’s 2008 film A Woman in Berlin. The film follows the collapse of Germany and the capture of Berlin by the Soviets in the final weeks of World War II through the eyes of an anonymous German woman. The film illustrates the unique and complex circumstances civilians, and in particular, women, were forced to face following the Allied victory. Much of the opening portion of A Woman in Berlin focuses on the visceral fear and despair the remaining civilians felt in the war’s concluding days and deals with the repeated rape and victimization of German women. These circumstances force a viewer to feel a semblance of the volatile emotions facing German women as well as to come to terms with questions pertaining to their innocence or guilt in the larger Nazi system. While many women were loyal followers of the party (the main character included), one is forced to grapple with whether or not the women in the film, in the wake of a lost war, should solicit sympathy for their plight. A Woman in Berlin also speaks once more to the strength and fortitude of German women, as the anonymous main character learns to navigate a hostile environment wrought with rape, exploitation, and pain—and win back some of her autonomy. The film speaks to the feminine experience of the effects of war, as well as to a part of German history that largely remains ignored.

Films are a distinctly powerful way to depict and convey pieces of the human experience. Historical films have the unique ability to not only tell stories, but to educate audiences on the truths of the past. In this sense, films about history have a responsibility to provide a “truthful” immersion in the events being told and played out on screen. “Truth” can encompass a wide variety of facets—emotional, psychological, factual—but above all, “truth” remains of the utmost importance. Perhaps nowhere is this strict adherence to truth in historical film more important than in Germany. The country was led to war by a fascist regime that was directly responsible for the death of millions of innocent people. Germany was also one of the nations that lost the most in World War II. Nuances and ambiguities abound in any major conflict such as war, and by examining the chronological depictions of Germany and its people on screen, one can gain a greater understanding not only of the evils of a people, but of the virtues as well—culminating in larger historical and pointedly human experience.

Paige Ross graduated in December 2018 with a degree in History.

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