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Moral Ambiguity In Post-War Germany: Max Färberböck on “A Woman In Berlin”

Moral Ambiguity In Post-War Germany: Max Färberböck on "A Woman In Berlin"

Max Färberböck’s “A Woman in Berlin” is set in April, 1945, when German women are victims of rape, and one of them, Anonyma, in her desperation and will to survive, decides to look for an officer who can protect her. She meets Russian officer Andrej, with whom she develops a complex and symbiotic relationship that forces them to remain enemies until the bitter end. Anonyma is one of the few surviving women to ever have reported on a subject that is still taboo, and which still occurs in wars around the world. Färberböck’s film is an adaptation of the book Anonyma wrote regarding her experiences, and is currently in theaters through Strand Releasing. Via e-mail, indieWIRE spoke to Färberböck about the film.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking and how has that interest evolved during your career?

I think, it all started, when I was about seven years old. Our teacher closed the curtains of the classroom. We were sorrounded by darkness and a feverish expectation of what was going on took place. We stared at a black wall as the rather hypnotic sound of a 16 mm projector started. Something big and unknown was about to happen. That was the beginning of an excitement, that never stopped – it actually takes part of me whenever I am shooting or watching a movie.

I think it has to do with the unpredictable. The moment, when all the things you wrote and thought about are handed over to life itself and then something comes back you had not expected at all.

Please discuss how the idea for ‘A Woman Of Berlin’ came about?

The book was given to me by a friend. Reading it, I was surprised and somehow shocked of the very unsentimental way this woman described the most horrible experiences. A year later my producer offered me to make a film out of it. I asked: What for? None of us had a proper answer, and it took quite a while to find one.

First of all, I was taken by the intelligence, brevity and the very uncompromising way that this woman talked not only of herself but also about the political backround of so many German women. She also had the courage to see the Russian soldiers as individuals, which meant not only in those days but even still today braking an unspoken rule: the Russians had to be the personification of cruelty and barbarism – that was somehow a very well working escapist way to avoid looking upon oneself.

She did not want to keep a shameful silence about what happened to herself and so many other women. In other words, she did not accept being a victim, but wanted to be a woman, who keeps mental and physical control of herself. She wanted to get rid of any cliche and truly understand what happened around her. She even went so far as to describe a fulfilling night with her protector – now this was far beyond anything you could possibly deal with. So I asked myself: Why does she do that? The only answer I found was that this woman not only wanted to report, but rather understand the mechanism of life among people who are pushed to their limits. And what she found was the tremendous ambiguity of all human values, she had ever believed in. She got some very tough points there: She talked freely about the disappointment women experience if the once adored hero is coming back from war as a broken man; She talked about the fluent transition between rape and prostitution many women had to face when taking in a Russian protector in order to safe their life and their dignity. Doing this, she broke the contract of silence which was the unspoken rule in nearly all German families. We can say that the beginning of the Bundesrepublik was based on this silence. Women did not ask their husbands: “What did you do in the war?” And men did not ask their wives: “What happened to you, when I was away?”

So finally I was confronted with many contradictions, moral ambiguity and the fact that there are many truths, not only one. Maybe it was this that made me go for the project.

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

One of the most challenging things was to keep the structure of the diary. We did not want to go for an overall plot. We did not want to impose the usual lovestrory between enemies. What we were going for was the unpredictable, the very, very unknown, and the presence of a complete anarchic real enemy any minute of the day. Those women did not know what would happen next and that is exactly the way the movie is told. The Russians were people full of hatred, violence and wide gesture of friendship. You just never knew what was the driving force of the moment. This atmosphere of what the Germans called “Belagerungszustand” dominated the film and was far more important than a conventional plot. The energy between the major and Anonyma is an attraction between two people who do not change their political conviction. She remains a very German-national orientated woman, while he believed in the future of the Soviet Union and neither of them change. What attracts them is the sincerity of something you cannot change. To keep this relationship, like all the others in the film, in an unsolvable tension was one of the toughest parts in writing the script.

Who or what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?

Kenji Mizoguchi, Luchino Visconti, John Ford and all the fantastic, outspoken and playful actors of American cinema in the 30’s and 40’s. It was the humanism of the French and Italian cinema which conquered my heart, but it was the richness of American musical, which made me fly and the secular and protestant sensuality of Ingmar Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer that took me back to a fascinating and sombre analysis of life.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

Be yourself and don’t bore the audience.

Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.

Listening to my own dialogues, roughly translated into Russian and spoken by nearly 150 men, that had come to our casting in St. Petersburg was an overwhelming experience. I listened to my own words in a different language and somehow every word was right. That was like a miracle and something I wont ever forget.

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