The story begins where most films about world war end – at the moment when Berlin capitulates. The story is about what happens then, a story that few people have wanted to speak about or put into film. The story is about neither heroics, nor ideology, nor something that would be written in textbooks. The story is about survival when the guns have fallen silent and when the people who remain need to make a new meaning of their shattered lives.
Both the victors and the vanquished.
The story is taken from a diary kept by an anonymous diarist (this diary caused such an uproar in Germany on its publication that the author preferred to remain anonymous) who was caught in the final collapse of Nazi state. Soon Berlin is surrounded by and filled with the Red Army, an army which had gone through hell to get to this victory. An army, more importantly for the inhabitants of Berlin, with a score to settle. Hitler had proclaimed the Slavic people to be untermensch or sub-human, fit only for extermination or slavery and the Wehrmacht (especially the SS) had taken up the task with enthusiasm. The result was that almost every soldier in the Red Army had someone or the other affected by the brutality of the Germans.
This did not bode well for the unfortunate men (mostly old – most able bodied men had been captured or dead or still fighting some hopeless battle somewhere) and the women trapped in the fallen city. It is well documented that the Red Army soldiers went on a raping spree as soon as the city had fallen. We get an account of that from a woman who experienced firsthand the horrors of being a spoil of war. After the initial horrors, she begins to understand that in order to survive, she must accept the reality of the situation and get some control of the situation. It is then that she makes a morally bold decision, which to a peace-time civilian would seem like a reprehensible decision but which when taken in the context of the situation that the author finds herself in, is a intensely brave decision.
But you would be mistaken to take this movie as a series of brutal acts. The complexity in the situation – both from the German and from the Russian side is something that the author understands and acknowledges as the story moves on. She realizes that the brutality that had been unleashed on the Russians prevents them from viewing the Germans as human and that it is a primitive revenge that is being exacted by the Russians. She also finds that the Russians, contrary to expectations (and German propaganda), can be generous and open-hearted and some of them (like the Battalion commander) worth feeling more than affection for.
The next stage in the movie comes when the German men start to come back. And suddenly you see through their eyes and you realize that they can never understand what the women have been through. Some try to adjust and fail and some simply wrap themselves up in denial. But the women soon realize that they are really alone in this one…
It’s a complex story at its heart, a story about a side of us that we rather not face in our day to day life. Which is what makes this movie so wonderful. It takes an unflinching look and makes us realize how intimately life is not black and white. It takes a look at the decisions that people need to take in a world gone to hell.
But most of all, it’s a movie about intense quiet bravery and of an unflagging human spirit. It’s about a human will to survive and retain something of our own in the most hellish of situations. And this is supported by some of the best acting that I have seen. The actors are able to portray a surreal world, where everything seems unreal. A nightmare world where everyone is struggling to find a place and some meaning again.
This is a movie that you need to see with an uncluttered mind. This will, then, stay with you for a long time.