A Woman in Berlin goes behind enemy lines

Director Max Farberbock explores wartime atrocities and national responsibility

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds suggests that, during World War II, all German soldiers or patriots deserved, at best, to have swastikas carved into their foreheads. A Woman in Berlin, by German director Max Färberböck, explores the wartime atrocities and national responsibility that prove wrenchingly complex.

A Woman in Berlin is based on a memoir published in 1959 by an author identified only as “Anonyma.” The nameless narrator (Jerichow’s Nina Hoss) describes her experiences as a German woman surviving the Russian occupation of Berlin in the final throes of World War II. The wife of a German soldier and a starry-eyed nationalist before and during the war, Anonyma finds her home in enemy territory when the Russian army takes over her Berlin neighborhood in 1945.

Flush with their wartime victories, the Russian soldiers treat Anonyma and Germans of virtually any age as common property. Though not explicit, A Woman in Berlin conveys the dread and brutality of the women’s situation: After one assault, an unwashed Russian spits on Hoss’ character. Anonyma speaks Russian and seeks commanders in the Red Army to protect, if not all the German refugees, at least her, but they call her “Frau Hitler” and treat her with little sympathy. Hoss’ dark, hell-haunted eyes provide a counterpoint to her Aryan beauty.

A Woman in Berlin primarily takes place in one building on a rubble-strewn block where the German civilians huddle indoors and peer warily at the Russians occupying the streets. Färberböck’s film refuses to simply demonize the Russian army. Anonyma finds an emotionally conflicted protector in a battalion commander (Yevgeni Sidikhin). His staff includes a female officer and a Mongolian enlisted man, indicating the army’s diversity and internal tensions. At one point, a group of women of multiple generations talk bawdily about Russian vs. German lovers, hinting how even brutalized individuals can adjust to a “new normal.”

When the Russians invade the civilians’ building or drag off unwilling women, the audience easily equates their treatment with the Nazi abuse of Jewish families. Characters also explicitly mention German atrocities perpetuated against Russian civilians during the war. A Woman in Berlin’s account of the women’s mistreatment feels, on the national level, like eye-for-an-eye poetic justice, while proving unbearably cruel on the individual, human level. War can make victims of anyone.