A dramatization of a German woman’s diary chronicling the closing days of WWII, A Woman in Berlin shares something in common with its main character: anonymity. Unlike the forceful, unwavering Downfall, which dared to view Berlin’s final collapse into an inferno of medievalist savagery exclusively through guilty German eyes, this is a film with diplomacy and even-handedness constantly on the brain as it divides and dilutes its viewpoint among a host of historically identifiable constituencies: Regretful and dead-ender Germans, restrained and plunderous Russians, and cultural outsiders like a Mongolian-Soviet infantryman and a Silesian refugee on the German side are all foregrounded just long enough to have their stories presented in the tidy dimensions of a made-for-television film.
Their connective point is Anonyma (Nina Hoss), an unofficial housemother to a rabble of survivors in a bombed-out apartment building and a walking blond temptation to the victorious Soviet troops who are seen filling the corner square in increasing numbers (these congregations are frequently filmed at low angles and with a blinding white filter to conceal budget limitations) and who are insistent on taking spoils as repayment for the hardships of war. Soon, Anonyma and the other captive German women are being subjected to an almost systematic program of rape, conducted with the tacit approval of several high-ranking Soviet officers on site, some oily and lecherous, some too busy or distant to care. Though these assaults and their subsequent decades-long concealment behind the Iron Curtain form the ostensible subject of this film, director Max Farberbock stages the violence with a static, uninterested camera, projecting his own hesitancy and timidity toward the subject matter onto each encounter, as if he’s eager to avoid any accusations of gratuitousness or prurience. As quickly as possible, the initial, brutal encounters are concluded and the film is hurried along to its second, plot-heavy incarnation as a healing-and-reconciliation drama.
A tentative, understandably strained relationship builds between Anonyma and the war-weary, pragmatic Soviet colonel Andrej (Evgeny Sidikhin), one initially premised on her calculated attempt at becoming the kept and protected woman of an officer, rather than the plaything of a regiment of voracious grunts. In servicing her survival-focused, hardened-by-deprivation character, Hoss maintains a brittle, tight-lipped demeanor throughout, and has little occasion to exercise her wide, expressive features, which could stand comparison to Joan Crawford, and which seem an ideal conduit for channeling big swells of emotion. She’s further constrained in her performance by the film’s curious decision to tease a mystery out of her character’s undeclared political sympathies, the potentially alarming dimensions of which are first hinted at when she declines to respond to a direct query about her loyalty to the fallen regime, and then come further into focus when she is found to be harboring a young German soldier; it’s one of the film’s many such self-contained, blandly-scripted happenings, with another being an attempt by the German captives to stage a cross-cultural dinner between themselves and their conquerors, which fails when the Russians get drunk and trash the joint. Although it would likely be praised for fair play by a variety of European political interest groups, and could be of informational interest to those unfamiliar with this historical juncture, Woman in Berlin never rises in its complexities beyond History 101.