"A Woman in Berlin" is the best movie you're not going to see this year. You're going to read this review, maybe some others, you'll say, "That sounds good," but you won't go because the subject matter is difficult to handle. So difficult, so taboo, that it caused a scandal in Germany that lasted nearly half a century.
Not going, however, would really be a shame, because this powerfully told, devastating film, directed by Max Farberbock ("Aimee & Jaguar") and starring German actress of the moment Nina Hoss, is everything you want in adult narrative cinema: It's intelligent, provocative and intensely dramatic. Its subject matter may be tough but it is as powerfully authentic as anyone could want.
"A Woman in Berlin" is based on a book, subtitled "Eight Weeks in the Conquered City" and written anonymously in the form of an expanded diary, that dealt with the Russian occupation of Berlin at the end of World War II.
The book first saw the light of day as an English translation published in 1954 and was not published in Germany until five years later. The reaction there was, frankly, incendiary, with one writer accusing it of "besmirching the honor of German women."
The outrage and condemnation the work was met with so unnerved the writer that she vowed not to allow the book to be reprinted until after her death and insisted on remaining anonymous even into the grave. When "Woman" was finally republished in 2001, it at last received the recognition it was due as a devastating, unswervingly unsentimental account of one of the war's last taboo areas.
For though it has not often been dealt with or even recognized, the period of Soviet occupation of a half-deserted Berlin populated largely by women resulted in what historians estimate was 100,000 rapes. As one of the characters in the film puts it, "Berlin is one big whorehouse."
"A Woman in Berlin," however, is not a documentary, and the triumph of writer-director Farberbock is to have constructed a story that illuminates this period while focusing intensely on the life of one woman, the anonymous diarist, exceptionally played by Hoss. He expands on sections of the book to make the story more dramatic without diluting its powerful essence.
The film opens with Berlin in ruins and the Russians in the process of taking over, and it's immediately clear how convincingly the physicality of a city reduced to rubble has been captured. Filmmaker Farberbock's excellent "Aimee & Jaguar" was also set during the war, and he has become as at home in that period as Merchant Ivory were in Edwardian England.
After a quick flashback illustrating how confident the Germans were of ultimate victory, "Berlin" returns for good to the wrenching despair of being on the losing side. Through the eyes of the anonymous narrator, a sophisticated journalist who had traveled in 12 countries and lived in Paris, London and Moscow, we experience the initial jolt of a nightmare from which there is no awakening, no escape.
The individual rapes the city's women are subjected to are shown only briefly, but it is the number of them that is overwhelming, as well as how quickly they become the norm. One of the most telling moments in the film comes when the narrator runs into Elke ("Aimee & Jaguar's" Juliane Kohler), a friend from before the war. It's casually chilling when, after initial hugs, the two ask each other nonchalantly, "How often," and you know without being told exactly what they are referring to.
But because they have to survive, these women do not have the luxury of bottomless despair. Much of "A Woman in Berlin" involves what people are capable of doing to stay alive in a lowest common denominator situation where conventional morality is a distinct liability and people are more than willing to "step over corpses to get to a jar of jam."
What the narrator, who has the advantage of speaking rudimentary Russian, chooses to do is "decide who gets me." Having determined that "a pact with one devil is better than many," she searches for someone who will protect her from the hordes in return for sexual exclusivity. Her only fear, she says, is being ambushed by her heart.
The narrator soon, in effect, propositions a high-ranking Russian major named Andrej (Evgeny Sidikhin) and so begins the liaison that forms the spine of the film. It becomes more real than either party intends, but it would be a mistake to give it a name that means something only in a peacetime context. Built on an incendiary combination of power, attraction and deprivation, it is a relationship that could happen only during the particular kind of saturnalia that the chaos of war breeds. "Misfortune has a greater imagination than we do," the narrator says at one point, and that could well be the motto of this brutal, unforgettable film.
'A Woman in Berlin'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood; Laemmle's Encino Town Center 5, Encino; Edwards Irvine Westpark 8, Irvine