Friday, July 17, 2009

film review: A WOMAN IN BERLIN

It's hard to imagine. The fear, the atrocities, the humiliation that Stalin's soldiers of the Red Army inflicted on women, raping them one after another, time and time again. It was the last days of war, they were enemies and critically acclaimed film A WOMAN IN BERLIN is not easy to watch. Written and directed by Max Farberbock, the film is based on the diary of Anonyma, a well-educated, well-versed woman and journalist who lived in the capitals of the world, Moscow, London, Paris and believed in the nationalistic rhetoric of a new world order. It is visually, compelling storytelling.

In the final days, Berlin, the Soviet Red Army makes its way to the center of what civilized life once was, their barbaric trampling and wanton destruction strikes fear in what will come next. It's hard to watch what does come next because of the knowledge that it's coming. It is known that the rapes had begun as soon as the Red Army entered east Prussia and Silesia in 1944. By the time the Red Army reached Berlin, its reputation had already terrified the population, many of whom fled while others stayed behind. That's where the story begins, bombed out ruins with rumblings of tanks approaching, people scrambling for the safety in meandering cavernous cellars twisting into dead ends. But no one was safe.

The Soviets saw rape, often carried out in front of a woman's husband and family, as an appropriate way of humiliating the Germans who had treated Slavs with disdain as an inferior race. In accordance with Russia's patriarchal society, Stalin condoned the brutality and encouraged binge-drinking that kept his soldiers drunken and depraved. Women were raped on their death beds, pregnant and due to give birth, others raped by countless men waiting their turn, one after another, day after day. Fear, shame and because they were members of the nation that started the bloodiest war in history contributed to their gritted teeth and silent suffering.

Scenes flowed from the real-life journalist's pages. After the initial barrage of physical attacks, life had a way of settling down as the soldiers settled in looting and pillaging what were once shops and private homes. The juxtaposition of sitting room and dining furniture dragged out in the street and the care taken of a treasured mahogany table within one apartment dwelling brought out the universal need to carve out a little comfort from the chaos. When the women made their decision to do whatever it takes to survive the ordeal, victors and their victims took on faces and voices of real people, not what the official propaganda branded them to be.

And that's how the author of this journal determined not to be the victim, but decided who would be allowed to take her, finding higher ranking officers who would not only protect her but the other occupants within the building she resided. The relationship with the Major teetered on mutual respect and admiration for their educated conversations and the sudden realizations that they still are on opposite ideological fronts still suffering from wounds inflicted by their own people. Here, Farberbock brought out the faces from the maddening crowd that could have been a blur for the women characters whereas, they became: the Alpha Wolf, the Farmer who managers a milk cooperative, a Merchant with gifts for a specific woman he visits, the silent Mongolian sentry. Their countenances are that of young men, fathers, sons, brothers and brethren of war under dire circumstances with their own personal stories of death and destruction. The cinematography superbly captures the haunted looks of the women and the soldiers with particular emphasis on the defeated who could only stand by and witness the rapes, unable to do anything to stop it.

Academics have begun recording the victim's experiences and according to military historian, Anthony Beevor, the Red Army's rapes were conducted on a much greater scale than otherwise suspected but never brought up as war crimes. "By the time Russians reached Berlin, soldiers were regarding women as carnal booty: they felt because they were liberating Europe they could behave as they pleased. That is very frightening, because one starts to realise that civilisation is terribly superficial and the facade can be stripped away in a very short time." Although the Mein Kampf struggle came to an end in May 1945, the ordeal of german women continued well into the end of the decade when the soldiers were finally removed from where civilians lived and remanded to security checkpoints and their own camps. The scale of rape is suggested by the fact that about two million women had illegal abortions every year between 1945 and 1948.

A WOMAN IN BERLIN screened as part of Special Presentations at the 2008 toronto Film Festival and under Film Comment Selects at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2009. Opens in New York on Friday, July 17 at the Angelika Fiml Center followed by a national roll out.

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