Something Different from the Studio / by Melissa Hefferlin

My blog today is not about painting, but a movie. I have been revisiting one in particular which swings far clear of being a “happy” film, but in it I find much to contemplate. The film is called “A Woman in Berlin,” directed by Max Färberböck and starring Nina Hoss with Evgeniy Sidikhin. Characters speak in German and Russian, with subtitles.

The plot follows a successful, seemingly privileged German journalist who returns to Berlin at the end of World War II but becomes trapped in the Soviet zone. The situation for women was terrifying. The story follows the heroine's assessment of her situation, the course of action she plotted and the changes to her thinking which result.

Three things stay with me. Firstly, I awe at the fortitude of the heroine in situations beyond disturbing. It’s rare to observe in media a female character who is self-contained, self-possessed and as much as possible, self-directed in good times, not to mention in crisis. This woman has that, and also an ability to listen to the rants of anguished people without taking on their burdens. She learns from conflict. I admire that.

Secondly, while not flattering, the presentation of the Soviet soldiers is complex, despite the indications of the film's publicity material. Real Russian/Soviet actors of formidable quality are employed and they portray characters broken to varying degrees by the war, some monsters some less so. Having my own history with Mother Russia, I was moved by how the film told the Soviets' stories with a voice at once unblinking and somehow increasingly compassionate. This is difficult territory when presenting a band of burned-out "enemy" soldiers (as they were to the film's narrator), many of whom are rapists. The half-stories about Soviet female soldiers are poignant if one catches them.

And thirdly, I am moved by the relationship of a Russian officer and the story’s heroine. Allied for utilitarian reasons of simple survival (on her part) and something related to but more than victory sex on his part, the man and woman alter one another. That a beautiful woman and an officer come together in a movie is of course predictable, but the connection avoids tasting saccharine. I am reminded that as much as humans need nourishment and rest, we also hunger to be known. This desire pushes the characters to make ugly revelations about their passage through the war. I am fascinated that kindness and connection percolate to the surface of behavior here and there, even if in mutations, no matter how one clubs them down, as we do during war and other brutalities.

The film makes me want to be a better painter, to see complexities instead of only black and white.  By illustrating some of the damage war inflicts on all participants, whether enemy or ally, victim or victor, the film reminds me to work for peace.