Rape is one of the oldest horrors of war. Movies rarely deal with it in any depth; but now comes “A Woman in Berlin,” a German film that takes wartime rape — and associated gray areas of resistance and “collaboration” — as its subject. The film asks an agonizing question: In a situation in which women become spoils of war, to be raped and beaten and spit upon at the enemy’s whim, what are their options?
The movie begins on April 26, 1945. The end of the War in Europe is less than two weeks away. Soviet forces are on the outskirts of Berlin, the bomb-battered German capital, where Adolph Hitler, locked away in his bunker, is in raving denial. (Four days later he’ll commit suicide.) When the Soviets break through and take part of the city, its civilian residents are at their mercy. They have good reason to be terrified. Over the past four years, Nazi invaders, storming the Soviet Union, had killed tens of millions of Russian soldiers and civilians, often monstrously. (Later in the film, a young Russian tells how Nazis captured his village and killed all the children — stabbing them, throwing them against walls, beating in their skulls. “I saw it,” he says numbly.) Now the victorious Soviet troops, pouring through the streets of Berlin, are in a vengeful mood.
The movie’s protagonist, played by Nina Hoss, is a woman called Anonyma. (The picture is based on a 1954 memoir of the fall of Berlin by Marta Hillers, a woman who lived through it and chose at the time to remain anonymous.) She is a journalist, well-educated, who over the course of her career had been stationed in London, Paris and Moscow (where she added Russian to her list of languages). Her husband, Gerd (August Diehl), is a German soldier currently stationed elsewhere. As the story gets underway, we find her huddled in the basement of an apartment house with a number of other frightened people, mostly women.
The random raping begins almost immediately, with Russian soldiers, fueled by the alcohol they’ve long been denied in combat, dragging off young women, very old ones, and girls not even in their teens. After being raped three times herself, Anonyma comes to a desperate decision: In order to maintain some vestige of personal autonomy, she tells us, “I swore that nobody would touch me unless I let them.” And so in order to approximate a human connection, she greets the next soldier who approaches her with a smile, and sleeps with him voluntarily. “We’ll survive,” she tells another woman. “At all costs.”
Anonyma soon finds a powerful protector, a Russian major named Andreij (Yevgeni Sidikhin). Like her he is intelligent and cultivated (he plays classical piano). She begins sleeping with him, and they fall into something that might have been love, in another context. Soon Andreij is bringing supplies — scarce food, wine, sugar — to the decrepit apartment in which she and some other Germans have found shelter. Andreij deplores the rapes being perpetrated by Russian soldiers, and he assigns some of his men to guard these people. Soon the soldiers are castigating him as a traitor, and before long he’s transferred out of Berlin. Around this time Anonyma’s husband returns home from the lost war. In a gesture of candor, she allows him to read her journals (from which her book was later assembled). He’s appalled. “You’re all shameless,” he says. “It’s disgusting just to look at you.” He storms off.
Is Anonyma an amoral collaborator, willing to do anything to find favor with her country’s occupiers? Or is she just a woman forced to defend herself in the absence of civilized alternatives? The question is further clouded by certain facts about Marta Hillers that are only alluded to in the movie, but are well-known in Europe (where her book was a best-seller upon its reissue in 2003). As a German who was free to travel during the Hitler period, Hillers obviously had privileged connections with the Nazi government, and even wrote propaganda for it. Should we withhold our sympathy? Or should we be gratified that she had the professional skill to record a hideous experience that was shared by many other women with less compromised backgrounds? Who can judge? And how?
Check out everything we’ve got on “A Woman in Berlin.”
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