||An anonymous diary was published in Germany in 1959, recounting the author’s experiences as a civilian in Berlin when Soviet troops occupied the city in late April of 1945. Her story was one of accommodation in the face of the soldiers’ casual rape of any women who fell into their hands. As the diary reported it, not only she but virtually all the residents of the building in which she lived compromised their principles in order to survive; attractive and sophisticated, a journalist who spoke a smattering of Russian and so was one of the few able to communicate with the occupiers, she developed a relationship with the commander of the brigade in control of the neighborhood—one based initially on what was in effect a quid pro quo understanding, but eventually became more than that.
The diary was met with hostility from the public, which saw it as a denigration of their ideal of German womanhood. It was withdrawn from circulation, and only reprinted after its author’s death in 2003.
Now Max Faerberboeck has made a film from the book, with Nina Hoss playing the journalist. It’s essentially a docudrama, but though deliberately paced and somewhat repetitive, it’s a powerful and enlightening one. The focus is on the residents of the building in which the protagonist lives, a varied group of characters that include a lesbian couple, a pragmatic widow, an elderly couple and some younger women. They, and the other locals, find themselves at the mercy of soldiers whose language they don’t understand and whose manners strike them as boorish—and who harbor an understandable grudge against the citizens of the country that invaded theirs. German women are particularly ill-treated, with rape so frequent that they commonly greet one another with a question about how many times they’ve been abused by the Russians.
The journalist’s ability to talk to the soldiers gives her an advantage, and while Andrei (Evgeny Sidikhin), the officer she approaches for help with the situation, initially refuses to intervene, he’s drawn to her, and the two become close, first in a purely transactional way but, as time goes on, with some affection—or at least concern—growing between them. He’s a cultured man with a sad, world-weary attitude that’s explained in due course, and though capable of violent mood swings, he makes her building a center of entertainment for his men.
There’s a good deal of sympathy engendered for the local residents as scenes of their mistreatment multiply; even the sequences of soldiers and their “hosts” eating and singing together can’t compensate. But the picture doesn’t become a mere catalogue of Soviet depravity and German suffering. The journalist is no innocent—early scenes show her and her husband Gerd (August Diehl) as committed fascists, gloating over German battlefield triumphs at opulent soirees—and in one strong sequence the soldiers tell their “hosts” of the atrocities the invading Nazis committed in Russia earlier in the war. These moments can’t establish an equivalency, but they do help to balance the scales.
Sometimes “A Woman in Berlin” slides toward melodrama, and at well over two hours it strays into epic territory. But in general, with its excellent acting and classy production, it’s a sound, strong rendering of the kind of episode that’s common in war but documented in this case better than most.
And the film ends with a coda that makes what happened all the worse. When the heroine’s husband Gerd returns from the front and reads his wife’s diary, he responds with revulsion at the thought of her straying so far from his expectation of how German women should have behaved, and abandons her in an act that presages the original public reaction to her book. It makes a fitting conclusion to a film that offers a ray of hope for the possibility of human connection in even the darkest circumstances, but also shows how dark those circumstances can be.