Based on the autobiographical novel by a German international correspondent who published her wartime journal under the pseudonym Anonyma, Max Färberböck’s A Woman in Berlin presents a raw and sobering account of the waning days of World War II as the Russian army seized control of a town in war torn Berlin and, consequently, lorded over the decimated population of women, children, and elderly men left behind. Shot from the perspective of the unnamed heroine (Nina Hoss), the film chronicles her journey from victim to survivor, as encamped troops, prevented by their superiors from advancing their campaign to Reichstag, channel their weariness and displaced aggression by systematically raping and terrorizing the women of the town. But rather than facile characterizations of good and evil, the idea of victim and perpetrator in the film also proves to be malleable. In an early scene, the residents, having sought refuge in a cellar for protection against the Russians searching for their next victim, implores the Russian-speaking heroine to approach the soldiers in order to plead for the release of a captured young woman who, in turn, then flees to the safety of the locked room, leaving her savior to endure her intended fate. Later in the film, a young Russian soldier details the killing of children in his village by German soldiers, and the heroine reluctantly translates his testimony, repeatedly asking if he had actually witnessed the massacre. In still another episode, a Russian nurse named Masha (Aleksandra Kulikova) tries to dispel the notion of her superior’s affection towards the heroine by revealing that the wife of Major Rybkin (Yevgeni Sidikhin), the commanding officer who had once refused to intervene and stop the violence, had been killed by the Germans. However, inasmuch as the film illustrates the grey area between survival and exploitation, transgression and moral conscience, the complexity of human behavior is also reduced to predictable caricatures – the proud, old world resident (Irm Hermann) all too eager to curry favor from their captors, the sullen, lovestruck nurse reduced to icy glares and adolescent tantrums to register displeasure at her rival, the smarmy lothario (Roman Gribkov) who uses his privileged position to his advantage, the craven young German soldier (Sebastian Urzendowsky) who wallows incessantly in self pity over the humiliation his girlfriend endures to shelter him, yet does nothing to protect her – resulting in a well intentioned, if superficial exposition on the untold victims of war.
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