An incendiary anonymous diary describing Russian soldiers raping and pillaging during the final days of World War II -- and an against-all-odds relationship that emerged from that -- become a stately, intermittently gripping, ultimately overlong drama in helmer Max Faerberboeck's "A Woman in Berlin." Handsome item will do the obligatory fest circuit and could even attract distrib attention on the strength of its subject matter and the rep of Faerberboeck's earlier "Aimee & Jaguar," set in the same city at approximately the same time.

An incendiary anonymous diary describing Russian soldiers raping and pillaging during the final days of World War II — and an against-all-odds relationship that emerged from that — become a stately, intermittently gripping, ultimately overlong drama in helmer Max Faerberboeck’s “A Woman in Berlin.” Handsome item will do the obligatory fest circuit and could even attract distrib attention on the strength of its subject matter and the rep of Faerberboeck’s earlier “Aimee & Jaguar,” set in the same city at approximately the same time.

A German journo (Nina Hoss), known only as “Anonyma,” documented the events of mid-1945 in handwritten diaries for soldier b.f. Gerd (August Diehl), who’s disappeared to the Eastern Front.

She’s spent the fall of Berlin hiding in the basement of her partially damaged apartment building with a diverse group of neighbors. There’s a take-charge widow (former Fassbinder regular Irm Hermann); a pair of effervescent sisters (Joerdis Triebel, Rosalie Thomass); an elderly bookseller (Katharina Blaschke); a liquor magnate (Maria Hartmann); two lesbian lovers (Sandra Hueller, Isabell Gerschke); a refugee girl in hiding (Anne Kanis) and a resolute octogenarian (Erni Mangold).

After being raped repeatedly by a number of coarse Russian soldiers, Anonyma begins complaining to officers and finally finds one, Andrei (Evgeny Sidikhin), who seems willing to not only listen, but to help. Against all odds, the two become close.

Each woman develops her own way of coping with these unrelenting violations. Upon Gerd’s return, he’s aghast at what’s happened and the decisions taken in the name of survival.

There are undeniably serious issues raised by the revelations in Anonyma’s diary, and for a time, Faerberboeck explores how the women managed to retain their dignity. Yet by elongating the sequences establishing a handful of Russian soldiers as the heartless villains of the piece, the pic comes to appear to wallow in the depravity it’s condemning.

Large cast meshes well, though fewer storylines would streamline impact and running time.

Tech credits are pro, with a skillful blend of CGI and Polish sets creating a bombed-out Berlin that is utterly believable. Subject was also covered in Helke Sanders’ early 1990s docu “Liberators Take Liberties,” which came out at about the time the diary was first causing a sensation. “Aimee & Jaguar” co-star Juliane Koehler has a small part here.

A Woman in Berlin

Germany

Production

A Guenter Rohrbach, Constantin Film production, in association with ZDF, Tempus Film. (International sales: Beta Cinema, Oberhaching, Germany.) Produced by Rohrbach. Executive producer, Martin Moszkowicz. Directed, written by Max Faerberboeck, from the diary "Anonyma: A Woman in Berlin."

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Benedict Neuenfels; editor, Ewa J. Lind; music, Zbigniew Preisner; production designer, Uli Hanisch; costume designer, Lucia Faust; sound (Dolby Digital), Manfred Banach. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 5, 2008. Running time: 131 MIN.

With

Nina Hoss, Evgeny Sidikhin, Irm Hermann, Ruediger Vogler, Ulrike Krumbiegel, Rolf Kanies, Joerdis Triebel, Rosalie Thomass, Katharina Blaschke, Maria Hartmann, Sandra Hueller, Isabell Gerschke, Erni Mangold, Roman Gribkov, Juliane Koehler, Samvel Muzhikyan, Viktor Zhalsanov, Aleksandra Kulikova, Oleg Chernov, Anne Kanis, August Diehl. (German, Russian dialogue)
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