A Woman in Berlin
In the spring of 1945, as Stalin’s army advanced into the chaotically destroyed outskirts of Berlin, Russia’s soldiers initiated the mass rape of German women. These attacks were indiscriminate; young and old, attractive and plain, married or single, the women of the city were repeatedly assaulted with the tacit approval of the military officers in charge. This horrific process was so widespread and repeated that the women soon began to greet each other with the question: “How many times?” The agony continued for two months and ended only after Hitler committed suicide and the city was divided into 4 zones, each controlled by one of the four Allied armies. When the Red Army’s frenzy finally ended, the violated women entered into an informal conspiracy of silence to avoid being ostracized by their fellow citizens and rejected by husbands & finances returning from combat.
A 33-yr. old reporter/photographer kept a journal of her experiences during this nightmare and anonymously published it here in the U.S. in 1954. When it finally appeared in Germany five years later, it was treated with stony silence or accusations that it was a work of fiction; one reviewer heatedly accused it of “besmirching the honor of German women”. Only the emergence of feminism in the later decades of the twentieth century and a willingness on the part of young Germans born after the war to come to terms with their country’s actions during that period finally turned the still controversial work into a bestseller when in was re-published there in 2001. Nevertheless, the author was so disturbed by the book’s initial reception she refused to allow it to be republished until after her death and let instructions with her publisher never to reveal her identity.
Director Max Farberbock, (Aimee & Jaguar) employs German acting sensation Nina Hoss as the anonymous victim whose peripatetic career had taken her to Moscow before the war, were she mastered enough Russian to be understood by her attackers. After repeated assaults she chose to regain some measure of control over her body by attaching herself to an officer with sufficient rank to assure her protection. Major Andreij Rkybin, (Yevgeni Sidikhin) fit that bill; he was sufficiently powerful to keep other soldiers at bay and during the months of their brief relationship, she came to regard him with a mixture of wary affection and detached resignation. The women around her didn’t fare as well, but the cumulative impact of their experiences produced an unexpected resiliency, fueled by as much by their determination to survive as the realization that their Russian attackers could control their bodies but not their spirits. The women found the strength to bawdily mock the supposed sexual prowess of their rapists and came to terms with their circumstances in often unexpected ways.
As the anonymous author, Hoss employs Nordic good looks and an aura of educated sophistication to fashion a character with the ability to credibly attract a suitable protector, but her matter-of-fact depiction of the conditions to which the women of the defeated city were subjected doesn’t produce a role with much dramatic range. (It was the apparently casual style of the book which so offended German audiences when it first came out.) Hoss is new to American audiences and the demands of her part and the repulsive storyline in which it’s embedded makes judging her artistic skills unusually difficult.
Sidikhin, an established Russian actor with nearly 40 roles in his distinguished career, plays Major Kykbin with a riveting blend of male chauvinism and unexpected sensitivity, creating a simultaneously disgusting and oddly noble character. His first reaction to the women who objected to being raped was his insistence that “my soldiers are clean”, as if disease was the only legitimate concern the victims might have. He tells another supplicant that her degradation couldn’t be too severe because it lasted “only a few minutes” as if brevity was ameliorating factor. But he also struggles to explain the actions of his men by pointing out the horrors German soldiers inflicted during their invasion of his country; children literally butchered like livestock, the elderly and infirm senselessly destroyed, civilians burned alive…without justifying the actions of Russian troops, this film creates a brutal equation; on the scale of military conduct, how does one balance German atrocity against that levied on the bodies of Berlin’s females? This is payback of the most appalling kind.
Woman is nearly unbearable to watch; the director creates a nightmarish atmosphere amid the rubble of half-destroyed apartment blocks, streets littered with rubble and the cooking fires of Russian soldiers who have no barracks. “Home invasions” occur day and night, forcing the women to hide themselves as best they can, creating a movie with the palpable feeling of pervasive claustrophobia. Despite the absence of any sensationalizing of his material, Farberbock and his leads have fashioned a film as emotionally draining as any I’ve ever experienced. With excellent performances from his large cast, superbly executed cinematography and sets that graphically recreate the horrors of urban warfare, A Woman in Berlin becomes a cinematic nightmare as emotionally powerful as it is morally distressing.
The Verdict? A powerful examination of an appalling chapter in WW II, suitable only for the strongest of movie-going stomachs.
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