German actress Nina Hoss has a central role in Christian Petzold’s second feature, Jerichow, one of the best films of 2009’s first half, and now she carries Max Färberböck’s WWII picture, A Woman in Berlin. In both films Hoss finds herself mired in dangerous power-struggles with men, spurred by cultural divides. In Jerichow, a present day re-imagining of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Hoss plays a native German controlled by the wealthy Turkish immigrant husband who rescued her from debt, and whose side she cannot leave. As the titular woman in Berlin, Hoss finds herself at the mercy of Soviet troops during the 1945 occupation of the city, raped by the Red Army soldiers during nightly raids on the civilians’ bombed-out homes. And in both films, Hoss delivers the standout performance; she looks like a German proxy for Emmanuelle Béart and exudes a similar coolly intelligent and calculating persona, here lending Färberböck’s relatively routine war picture some sophistication and individuality.
With dark eyes, full lips, bleached blonde hair and a tall, slender figure, Hoss’ strong-willed fraü is lusted after by every weary, victorious Russian soldier, making even a stroll or a bike ride down Berlin’s streets, seething with barbaric Soviets, a test of her own fate. A Woman in Berlin is based on the German memoir Anonyma, released in 1959 to (as the film puts it) “outrage and condemnation” targeted at its author — who subsequently ceased publication of the personal account and resolved to stay anonymous. Hoss plays the lead, announcing during a clunky narration cropping up throughout the film that she will remain “anonyma.” This is unfortunately appropriate, as Färberböck’s film presents many characters with a lack of identity, catering to archetypal formulas: there’s the handsome but expressionless, morally conflicted Russian Major (Yevgeni Sidikhin) who inevitably becomes Anonyma’s love interest, and her steely-eyed companion who’s more wallpaper than a character. Only Hoss herself stands out as a fascinating character; a former journalist and photographer, educated and strong-willed, Anonyma rationalizes to herself that it’s not rape if she gives consent, and thus seeks out favorable suitors, able to communicate with the Russians better than the other women in her circle as she’s the only one who speaks their language.
It’s a powerful story of resilience and perseverance, but it’s not one we haven’t seen before; cultural table-turning aside, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist is fairly similar to A Woman In Berlin, with its depiction of the bourgeoisie brought down to the level of animals, herded from one location to the next, and always an impatient soldier’s discharge away from execution. And Färberböck’s film lacks both the intimacy and formal control of “The Pianist,” never mustering a passage quite as memorable or stirring as the last half hour of Polanski’s drama, nor producing any sequence quite as cathartic and rapturous as The Pianist‘s finale. Neither is the scope of Berlin anywhere near as sweeping as Olivier Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, which holds the added historical reverence of observing the great Bruno Ganz deliver a hemming and hawing performance as Hitler during his last days in the bunker. In terms of WWII cinematic hierarchy, A Woman in Berlin falls more in line with the overrated Oscar-winner The Counterfeiters, with which it shares a washed-out color palette and an actor (August Diehl, one of the principal characters in Counterfeiters, who has what amounts to a cameo in Berlin as Anonyma’s war-torn husband).
The woozy cinematography on display glides from one banal close-up to the next, with very little regard for compositional quality (save one striking visual angled down at two woman dwarfed by a large looming soviet flag, contrasting with the many sequences shot gazing up at the strong-willed characters). Compare Färberböck’s relatively run-of-the-mill craft to that found in this year’s many other strong German films: Gotz Spielmann’s Revanche (well OK, that’s Austrian, but still…) where the static wide-angle photography and under-populated mise-en-scene create a palpable sense of isolation and loneliness; and Petzold’s aforementioned Jerichow, where the positioning of bodies within the frame reveals more about its characters and the dynamic between them than any amount of dialogue could. It wouldn’t be so bad that Max Färberböck’s cinematic craft can’t stack up to these budding auteurs if it felt like he was doing something interesting with his very played-out genre. Instead, A Woman in Berlin registers as not a bad film, but a safe and relatively bland one, elevated only by the performance of its lead actress and the inherently emotional quality of its subject matter.