Director Max Farberbock, who received international recognition for the lesbian romance Aimee & Jaguar, returns to mid-1940s war-torn Berlin for his latest film. Adapted from a diary that was published anonymously in the 1950s, A Woman in Berlin begins at the tail end of World War II, as the Soviets take control of the city. Occupation is the film’s literal and figurative subject. Its anonymous protagonist (“Anonyme,” Nina Hoss), a former journalist, is raped repeatedly by her Soviet occupiers, like many of her female friends and neighbors. Hungry, desperate, and fortunate enough to speak a little bit of Russian, she decides to use her sexuality to her advantage, targeting men to take as partners in an attempt to secure food, safety, and other amenities. She realizes that this quid pro quo makes her something of a prostitute (“A whore?” she wonders in her diary. “Perhaps”), but she also knows that she has no other power to wield—she can either accept her victimization or turn it to her advantage.
As the film’s closing intertitles note, the initial publication of the diary in Germany stirred controversy on the charge that it represented an affront to the honor of German women. The complaint may seem outrageous in hindsight, but it’s easy to imagine a nation just 15 years out of a militarily and morally crushing war rejecting a book that exposed the extremity of its powerlessness at the end of the conflict—and the price paid by its citizens as a result. The atrocities of military occupation make neither the occupier nor the occupied look good, and so it makes sense that they are frequently elided in the short term. It was only after the author’s death earlier this decade that A Woman in Berlin was reissued in Germany, to widespread acclaim. Taken in this context, Farberbock’s film is more than a simple period piece; it’s also an excavation of a largely ignored historical trauma.
Click here to read the rest of Chris Wisniewski’s review of A Woman in Berlin, which played in February’s Film Comment Selects series, and opens this week in New York.