Soviet propaganda always described the Red Army as liberators during World War II. Of course, the countries they occupied did not always see it that way, even those that were liberated from the Nazis. Yet, the Soviets’ harshest treatment was reserved for the German people themselves, particularly the women, like the anonymous protagonist of Max Färberböck’s A Woman in Berlin (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
She was known simply as Anonyma. She was indeed a supporter of the National Socialists, but was not directly culpable for any crimes against humanity. In the 1950’s she anonymously published her diary of the months immediately following the fall of Berlin. However, post-war Germans were so scandalized by her frank accounts of the raping and humiliations she and countless other women suffered at the hands of the Soviet Army, she withdrew it from publication and closely guarded her real identity (which the German literary press recently revealed) for the rest of her life.
As Berlin opens, Anonyma believes in the National Socialist propaganda and expects the lover who is leaving for the Eastern Front will soon return in glory. However, the fortunes of war were radically different from what they were led to believe. Before long, Soviet soldiers drag Anonyma out of her bomb-shelter hiding place to enjoy the spoils they consider their due as the victors.
This can be a very difficult film to watch. Though Färberböck shows relative restraint in the violence he chooses to show on-screen, there is no question as to the nature of the events depicted. After several such attacks, Anonyma decides she needs a Soviet protector—the higher his rank, the better. At first she becomes the lover of an unreliable junior officer, but she eventually succeeds in securing the protection of Major Andrej Rybkin, the commanding officer.
Anonyma was far from perfect. In fact, she all but admits to being a committed Fascist. However, her experiences are legitimately harrowing. The portrait that emerges of the Red Army is also quite realistic and hardly flattering. In addition to the Soviets’ wanton sexual assualts, Berlin also depicts the racism directed towards a Mongolian comrade and hints at the party purges that were just as lethal as military action.
With her gaunt look and aristocratic bearing, Nina Hoss is perfectly cast as Anonyma. Present in nearly every scene, Hoss dominates the film with her stoically tragic presence. Her truest co-star is the war-ravaged city itself, perfectly recreated by production designers Andrzej Halinski and Uli Hanisch. As the audience watches her daily struggles, every difficult choice becomes understandable. While many who read her published diary considered it an affront to the virtue of German women, we see her greeting old friends by simply asking “How many times?”
Färberböck deftly handles such potentially perilous material, never generating sympathy for the vanquished Nazis, but rather humanizing common people who should have known better. He films some utterly brutal scenes, without becoming exploitative. It is a demanding but engrossing film that brings to light the shocking conditions of life under Soviet military occupation. It opens this Friday (7/17) at the Angelika.