This is a joint review and consideration of the book A Woman in Berlin (1954) and the film of the same name (2008), whose original German title was Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin. I saw the film much earlier this year and then by complete chance came across a first edition of the London publication of the book (1955) in a second-hand bookshop (it was reprinted by Virago in 2005).
Unusually in these circumstances I think it worthwhile starting with the history of the work. Useful net information can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Woman_in_Berlin (as usual!) and also in Linda Grant’s Guardian review of the book at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/jul/02/featuresreviews.guardianreview5. The book was originally published anonymously and was greeted with a storm of protest in Germany, where its truth was denied. Then…
Two years after her death in 2003 the anonymous author was identified in the Süddeutsche Zeitung by Jens Bisky (a German literary editor) as Marta Hillers. Brisky said that Hillers was a journalist who worked on magazines and newspapers during the Nazi era, and who had also been a small-time propagandist for the Third Reich writing a navy recruiting brochure, but that she was probably not a member of the Nazi Party.
The book and film are a harrowing account of the mass rapes of German women which took place as the Red Army occupied Berlin in 1945. A recent history which includes an account of this is Antony Beevor’s excellent Downfall (2002), and Beevor has vouched for the truth of Hillers’ account. The film, directed by Max Farberbock, does not sanitise the book but it certainly romanticises it. In the book the protagonist realises that if she is to survive then she will need to seek the protection of a powerful Russian who will keep her as his exclusive property. In the film this relationship becomes something of a love story, which it certainly is not in the book. Despite this the essential themes of the book are preserved in the film. Both book and film are riveting. The film, to its great credit, avoids, as far as it is possible to do, any prurience. Both book and film in fact are highly recommended.
At the heart of the book is a terrible reality, but also for me a question which remains unanswered. In the Introduction to my edition the writer (a C.W. Ceram) says that when he met the author in 1947 she made the following remark…
“None of the victims will be able to wear their suffering like a crown of thorns,” she said. “I for one am convinced that what happened to me balanced an account.”
Now clearly this is a terrible burden : to feel on top of atrocity suffered that one somehow deserved it is unimaginable. And of course she did not ‘deserve it’ and nor did any of the women. But at the same time one can understand why she felt like this, and one can also understand why some at least of the Russians should have felt that any revenge they inflicted was a payback for what had happened to members of their own families, their communities.
However my nagging doubt and question are as to whether Hillers truly understood in what sense an account might be being balanced. Here is where the biographical information is so important. This was a woman who before the war had been a journalist in Moscow and Paris, who if not a full-fledged Nazi was certainly no opponent of the regime. Did she really not understand the nature of that regime? I know that this question comes out of my profound ignorance and is part of the general impossibility of our believing that an event like the Holocaust could go unnoticed. My father told me a story of how, when he was with the RAF in Germany after the war, he encountered a young woman who refused to believe in the reality of the particular camp which was quite near where he was stationed – he had to order that she be taken there and shown before she would acknowledge it. But is it possible that this was also true for a highly educated, literate journalist? Maybe it is. Certainly the book gives little away on this score. I am uncomfortably aware and questioning at times as to whether the spacious apartments in which the women live and are destroyed by the ‘barbarous’ Russians may have been seized from original Jewish occupants. And this undermines the book because it always nags away at the back of my mind. The atrocities which the German Army committed in Russia are vividly brought to life in the book (and repeated faithfully in the film) by some of the soldiers accounts. But the atrocities which the Nazis inflicted upon its own Jewish, gay, socialist populations is hardly mentioned. Well I have no answers and am just left with questions.
It is also important to mention the book’s feminism. This consists mainly in its observation that it was the women who not only suffered the most as Berlin fell, but it was they who held things together. And then German soldiers returning from the front blamed them for being raped and treated them as unclean and fallen. It is perhaps a familiar trope , but no less shocking for that. However Linda Grant deals with these things far better than I could (review cited and linked above).
Both the book and film are very powerful pieces which work well within their own genre. For me though there is a nagging question and doubt which somehow undermines my reading and viewing.