Monday, March 17, 2008

Dresden: a German City Gets Its Close-Up

Directed by Roland Suso Richter
Koch subtitled 2-DVD set

If a WWII drama is titled Dresden it is probably a safe bet there will eventually be some Allied bombs falling from the sky. Dresden, the German miniseries broadcast in America on the History Channel (and now available on DVD), does indeed climax during the devastating bombing of the German city, but remains quite compatible with American audiences’ perspective on the war.

Director Roland Suso Richter has demonstrated an affinity for projects about twentieth century German history expressing a sense of national self-awareness. His previous miniseries, The Tunnel, re-cut to feature length for the international market, is an excellent fact-based Cold War thriller about an effort to dig beneath the Berlin Wall to rescue loved ones from the Communist East. In Dresden the hero is actually Robert Newman, a British bomber pilot shot down over enemy territory and the villains are all Germans. Hardly unusual for an English language production, but from German television it seems fairly bold.

Newman (who speaks fluent German, but with an identifiable accent) is sheltered by Anna Mauth, a German Nurse who does make a sympathetic heroine. However, her family, like most of the other German characters, is far from likeable. Her father can tell which way the winds of war blow and has been selling his hospital’s morphine allotments on the black market to pay for a new clinic in Switzerland. Anna’s doctor fiancĂ© lacks the moral courage to stand up to his prospective father-in-law. Her coquettish sister works for the National Socialists and uses her fearsome connections to intimidate others for sport.

Of course, Newman and Anna Mauth fall in love. In many ways, Dresden is a throwback to the sweeping miniseries that were Richard Chamberlain’s stock-and-trade, giving viewers romantic melodramas wrapped in the sweep of history. However, it does not shy away from sensitive issues, like the Holocaust. Laura Miller explains in a review of Frederick Taylor’s study of the bombing, it was actually an unexpected opportunity of escape for the few surviving Jews in Dresden, who were to be “relocated” the next day. To the credit of director Richter and screenwriter Stefan Kolditz, Dresden addresses these events directly in one of its subplots.

Historian Taylor also takes issue with traditional characterizations of the bombing as a horrific attack without sufficient military justification. It is here that Dresden does in fact display a German bias. As presented by the filmmakers, the British plan the attack as an effort to slake Stalin’s bloodlust, choosing the city on the basis of: “high urban concentration, flammable [sic] construction, narrow streets.”

Like the ship in Titanic, the city of Dresden is one of the stars of the miniseries. The production design is impressive, first recreating the city’s splendor and then leveling it to the ground. It is in its graphic depictions of ghastly death in the so-called bomb shelters that Dresden covers new ground, setting it apart from other WWII productions. Dresden is also refreshingly notable for making a Catholic priest one of the few sympathetic Germans, besides Anna Mauth.

The British Light turns in a strong performance as the strong, silent (by necessity) hero and the German cast is convincing throughout. At times the melodrama may seem a little over-ripe, but it sucks viewers in just the same. Throughout the film, it seems like the drama is accompanying a fair amount of soul searching regarding the country’s National Socialist past. Altogether, it makes for fascinating viewing.