War Is Hölle

07/15/2009 4:00 AM |

A Woman in Berlin
Directed by Max Färberböck

WWII is a cliché. So when a producer declares that his film exposes the “last taboo” of that global conflict — the systematic rape of Berliner frauen by the occupying Soviet army — it sounds too good to be true. Will we finally see something fresh? Around the mid-way point, an uncharacteristic moral complexity does emerge from the dully titled A Woman in Berlin, in which we kind of like the sexual aggressors and the women do, too. But director Färberböck is so insecure about this kind of ambiguity that he spoon-feeds us, mawkishly and insincerely, what leads up to it: there’s the lazy and pervasive voice-overs (ostensibly a tribute to the anonymously authored, best-selling source material); the swelling strings; a disembodied young girl’s creepy, reverb-y singing (did I wander into Orphan by mistake?); the ruthless close-up of a filthy, sweaty Russian’s face as he spits on our protagonist — get it? Rape is degrading? The last taboo of WWII isn’t any single unexplored story. It’s a film that eschews the hackneyed tropes applied to every other movie that touches it.

The wonderful Nina Hoss, of late the Gerwig to Christian Petzold’s Swanberg, stars as Anonyma, a worldly, educated journalist — she knows Pushkin’s biography and can toss off etymologies — caught up in the widespread raping like every other woman in the quarter. “Berlin is one big whorehouse,” one Red Army soldier remarks. Women are the spoils of war. But Anonyma and a few other girls eventually empower themselves by choosing with whom they’ll sleep: for Anonyma, it’s two (discomfitingly sympathetic) officers whose power she can exploit in exchange for the exploitation of her body. She takes war’s lemons and makes wartime lemonade.

Readers and critics met the memoir on which the film was based with disdain upon its initial publication in the late 1950s; the victims were reviled as whores. But times have changed, and the women now emerge as noble perseverers; “war changes our words,” Anonyma says. “Love is no longer what it once was.” In contrast, the story’s lily-livered herren cannot abide such realities. (“You’re all shameless,” Anonyma’s husband tells her upon returning from the front.) Anonyma and her similarly situated gal pals spend one scene sitting around the kitchen table, like Sex and the City girls, giggling over their experiences with the Russian rapists, peeing their pants about syphilis. Now that’s not a cliché. But Färberböck still boasts too many melodramatic tendencies (literally, too, with the prestige-pic scoring), despite some subversive scenes or gritty, guerilla-handhehld battle sequences. He toggles between Hollywood simplicity and raw excitement, between artifice and realism — between moral facility and complexity. That’s enough to make A Woman in Berlin one of the more interesting WWII flicks of the last few years. Though that’s not saying much.

Opens July 17