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A Nazi City – Berlin in the Films

November 9, 2010 | By

Interestingly, the film makers trying to depict Berlin of that era are faced with a number of hurdles, most notably the absence of internationally recognizable landmarks.

The loud explosion removes Hitler’s portrait from the collapsing wall. Through the gaping hole, we see the marriage registrar’s office, and a couple taking their marriage vows. The bombings disrupt the solemn proceedings and in a rather comic turn of events, the marriage formalities are hurried through by the registrar with bride and groom lying low on the pavements of Berlin, amidst a raging air raid. Who can ever forget the tumultuous opening scenes of The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) by Rainer Warner Fassbinder. It is one of the most striking introductions to Berlin as it was during the World War II. In a single shot, it depicts the crumbling away of the Nazi regime under allied attacks, as also the great extents the Berliners went to continue with their lives with that forced semblance of normality.

Marriage of Maria Braun

Marriage of Maria Braun

The film goes on to become one of the most poignant documents of postwar Berlin, and one woman’s struggles in a war ravaged city. The hanging out in the railway stations with placards, waiting for the loved ones to return, the everyday debasements, the paramour from the conquering army, reflects the loss suffered by the citizens, loss of security, loss of morality. The World War II almost destroyed Berlin. The last battle of the European theatre of the War was played out in the streets of this great city. It took a bone-shattering pounding from the allied bombers in the sky and from Russian ground troops who eventually conquered Berlin. The destruction to the city, its infrastructure and its citizens – both physical and psychological – was near total.

Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany, has a chequered past. It went on from being the Imperial Capital of the Kaiser to the verge of Revolution just as the World War I ended with Kaiser’s abdication. Margarethe von Trotta’s acclaimed biopic Rosa Luxemburg (1986), based on the life of the famed Spartacist leader, remains a moving document of these turbulent times. Extremists, from both right and left of the political spectrum, brought Berlin on throes of a civil war. The radical mood, the naive leaders, the half baked revolutions, this lavish period piece vividly captures Berlin of 1919, violent, restless and lost in the fog of defeat and confusion.

However, once the Weimar Republic settled down to govern Germany, the city blossomed. Berlin became one of the most happening places in Europe during the Roaring Twenties, showing enough social, cultural and artistic dynamism to be ranked at par with Paris or New York. But the rise of the National Socialists in the dark, desperate times of early Thirties and the accompanying violence lengthened its shadow over the city. After the Nazis stormed into power in 1933, Berlin became the notorious Nazi showpiece, the city of spies and intrigues, scandals and terror. During the World War II, it was devastated by the Allied Bombing campaign and finally suffered humiliation and foreign occupation after Germany’s defeat. This tumultuous time Berlin witnessed during the Nazi regime is full of stories, epic in their proportions and human enough to touch our hearts – stories utilised well by both German and non-German film makers over the years.

Interestingly, the film makers trying to depict Berlin of that era are faced with a number of hurdles, most notably the absence of internationally recognizable landmarks. Compared to London, Paris or New York, Berlin singularly lacks the icons that make a city “familiar” with international viewers. The illuminating study “London in Cinema: The Cinematic City since 1945” by Charlotte Brunsdon explores the variety of cinematic “Londons” that appear in films made since 1945. In a series of thematic chapters, the author discusses the familiar ways in which film makers establish that a film is set in London, by use of recognisable architectural landmarks as well as the city’s shorthand iconography of red buses and black cabs. She looks at London weather – fog and rain – which is often used by film makers to set the mood of a scene, and also everyday locations such as pubs and the decrepit council housing estates. The titles of some well known films even carry names of London locales, most notably Notting Hill (1999) by Roger Michell and Brick Lane (2007) by Sarah Gavron, places which are universally known for their unique characteristics. Berlin lacks this universal familiarity, and apart from the Brandenburg Tor and the Reichstag, there are hardly any instantly recognizable architectural landmarks, nor it possesses symbols which are familiar the world over apart from the Berlin Wall, and that too was built much later.

This absence of such familiar landmarks and icons made the depiction of a German city during the Nazi years much more difficult for the films makers, so they had to rely mostly on Nazi paraphernalia, like swastikas and flags and uniforms and parades. Physical reference to Berlin of the 1930s and 40s, the Nazi era, as a setting of a movie is dealt by the film makers by making use of the above, with shots of fire and smoke and rubble if the setting is during the War. The mood of the populace also underwent a profound change from the gay and liberal pre Nazi times to Nazi era euphoria mixed with jingoism and underlying terror, and then the painful aftermath of the war, when weary citizens tried to rebuild their shattered lives.

The landmark genre-defying Cabaret (1972) by Bob Fosse instantly comes to mind when discussing Berlin during the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic. The movie evokes the Berlin of 1931 as a city of gaiety and perversion and of champagne and Nazi propaganda. The short-lived decadent world of pre-Hitler Berlin, as well as the rising nationalistic tide of Fascism is effectively captured in this trend-setting musical. The setting is largely in a specific Berlin Nightclub known as Kit-Kat Club, and Liza Minnelli as the nightclub chanteuse Sally Bowles form the centre of this daring, sophisticated, and yet bawdy masterpiece. Cabaret broke new grounds in musical filmdom, having bisexuality, naked greed and Nazism as its ingredients. The film recreates the prevailing milieu in Berlin some 80 years ago, the hedonistic lifestyle of the times as also the ascent of the Nazis in the background.

Any regime takes pride in showcasing their great cities and the magnificent monuments therein. The breathtaking skyscrapers of New York is one of the prime examples of urban pride, the great commercial enterprises built a skyline that is yet to be rivalled by any other city in the world. Countless films from Hollywood have captured this much loved scenery on celluloid, with all its glory and grime and gloom, its lofty heights and utter misery. Dictators are no different. Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu built the “Palace of the Parliament” by demolishing much of Bucharest’s historic district to satisfy his lust for grandeur. Hitler too had ambitious plans for rebuilding Berlin by erecting lofty and gigantic monuments designed by his favourite architect Albert Speer. The plan for “Germania”, as Berlin would have been renamed, died with the onset of the war, but a start was made with the summer Olympics of 1936 in Berlin. The Olympic games, along with the purpose built Stadium, one of the great stone Fascist showpieces to survive the war almost intact, were immortalised in the film Olympia (1938) by legendary Leni Reifenstahl. Apart from the Reichstag, few directors had good fortune to use the period architecture of Berlin.

In contrast, another film set in Danzig just before and during the Nazi era, Die Blechtrommel (1979) by Volker Schlondorff, seems a tribute to this beautiful city. Based on the celebrated novel The Tin Drum by German author Gunter Grass, it is a landmark film which went on to win the best foreign language film Oscar in 1980. Danzig, or Gdansk, as it is now known as a city in Poland, has a rich architectural heritage which the director makes full use of. The magnificent gabled townhouses and great churches form an integral part of the narrative of this film.

Tin Drum

Tin Drum

Berlin and other prominent cities like Munich and Nuremberg were dressed up on special occasions to strike awe amongst visitors and spectators, draw admiration from the tourists and visiting statesmen and remind the citizens of the invincibility of the Nazis. City of Nuremberg features in two very contrasting films set in this era.

The first one is of course Triumph of the Will (1935) by Leni Reifenstahl again, which is a documentary film chronicling the 1934 Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg. The second is the Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) by Stanley Kramer. Triumph of the Will is a spectacular piece of visual imagery, with thousands marching in unison to attend the Nazi Party Rally. As Film critic Roger Ebert says that it is by general consent (one) of the best documentaries ever made. It is difficult to watch it and not be influenced by the overt passion emanating from it. The other film is Judgement at Nuremberg, starring Spencer Tracy as Presiding Judge of the War Crimes Tribunal trying the members of the German Judiciary for collaboration with the regime. At last, the ghost of Nuremberg is laid to rest, covering the full circle from Nazi indoctrination rallies to de-Nazification trials of collaborators.

Triumph of the Will

Triumph of the Will

Collaboration with the Nazis was considered to be a crime by the wartime allies. Investigation and prosecution of prominent Germans who were thought to be too cosy with the Nazis were vigorously pursued as an important component of De-Nazification of post war Germany. Taking Sides (2001) by distinguished Hungarian director Istvan Szabo is one such film in which a boorish and rude American Major (Harvey Keitel) is trying to establish the war guilt of the world famous conductor of Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Dr. Wilhelm Furtwangler. Szabo’s earlier film, the famous Mephisto (1981), about an actor who sold out his soul to the Nazis for material well being, has a distinct shadow over this film too. The question posed by this film is, was Furtwangler a Nazi collaborator?

Wilhelm Furtwangler is considered one of the greatest conductors of the twentieth century, ahead of Toscanini, his great rival. But as he chose to stay back and continue his work in Nazi Germany, while many of his colleagues left, made him a prime suspect of being a Nazi collaborator. That he still commanded respect in post–war Germany is evident from the reaction of the Berliners as he takes a tram ride through the city to come to the investigation centre, and also the reverence shown to him by German staffers at the interrogation office. The film begins in the grand setting of Berlin Opera House where Furtwangler’s performance gets interrupted by an air raid. But it is mostly set in post war Berlin – showing the ruined Reichstag in front of which a flea market has grown during the desperate days of the war’s immediate aftermath.

Music in German cities in the Nazi era did not contain Furtwangler’s classical variety only. Swing Kids (1993) by Thomas Carter, set around 1938-39, explores the other genres of music in German cities during this time. This film is about a group of teenagers, united by their love of jazz and contemporary American music, which are banned in Nazi Germany, and how they make their own, difficult choices to survive in the face of official opposition and expected conformity by the state against which they rebel. The urban surroundings are bleak and repressive, as Berlin was during the Nazi years, and the only outlet for the rebels remained a few clubs in downtown Berlin, whose owners had the temerity to stand up to the bullying tactics of the Nazis. The film also shows that the German Youth in the cities are yet to give up on the latest foreign fads, however “decadent” they may be termed by the regime, and there are still some brave youth who are willing to carry on the struggle for free thought and expression against overwhelming odds.

As mentioned before, German cities were usually bedecked grandiloquently with Nazi symbols to herald the beginning of a thousand year Reich. The iconography of these times, rather than that of individual cities, made a perfect setting for the art directors and production designers of the period pieces based on this era. A popular film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) by Steven Spielberg made use of the prevailing atmosphere in Berlin to great effect. Our hero Indiana Jones visits Berlin to retrieve a precious diary, and the viewers are treated to a Nazi parade in full swing, with Nazi Standards, fluttering Swastikas, torchlight parades, book burnings and other Nazi trappings on display, along with Nazi top brass. Nazi Parades are a grand spectacle to all who witness it and these were shown in their spectacular best in the film Triumph of the Will as earlier mentioned. The concept of the state and the people marching together in harmony was supposed to be reflected in these parades. But more often than not, they turned out to be an awesome show of strength and power by the Nazi party. As Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on 30th January 1933, a massive torchlight parade was held the same evening in Berlin to celebrate the birth of the Third Reich. “A river of fire flowed past the French Embassy’, Andre Francois-Poncet, the French ambassador wrote,’ whence, with heavy heart and foreboding, I watched its luminous wake”. These impressive shows of strength at once strike awe among the citizens or fear among any possible detractors.

As the tide of the war turned against Germany and German casualties mounted, resistance movements developed in some German cities. A recent and popular movie is Valkyrie (2008) by Bryan Singer, based on the 20th July plot to assassinate Hitler. Although the main attempt to kill Hitler with a time bomb took place in Rastenburg, Hitler’s bunker in East Prussia, most of the subsequent action took place in wartime Berlin. Tom Cruise played the role of von Stauffenberg, the German Army colonel who led the coup attempt in the film which also featured renowned actors Kenneth Branagh and Bill Nighy. As all are aware the attempt failed, the main viewer interest is in the development of the plot among the high ranking German generals and prominent dissidents, how their mind worked when faced with the difficult choice between loyalty and treason and how each tried to justify the action they took on that fateful afternoon in Berlin. In an engrossing thriller, the city of Berlin was on edge, tension was palpable as the coup leaders and die hard Nazi supporters squared off against each other.

As the war progressed, the city of Berlin, as was every other German city, was subjected to a fierce bombing campaign by the allies. The movie, Shining Through (1992) by David Seltzer, a rather melodramatic spy thriller starring Michael Douglas and Melanie Griffiths where Melanie plays a pretty all-American secretary turned spy, nevertheless has a number of Berlin street scenes, with bombs falling on the city during air raids and the citizens frantically seeking out the nearest air-raid shelter.

One of the most memorable recreations was that of the Berlin Railway Station, ill-lit due to blackouts, covered with swastikas and overcrowded with wounded soldiers from the Eastern Front. A dark, painful reality under the flag waving propaganda, far removed from the ground conditions. Another Holocaust film worth mentioning is Aimee & Jaguar (1999) by Max Farberbock, based on a true story of an affair between a Jewish woman Felice (Jaguar) and her lover Mrs. Lillly Wust (Aimee). Both of them residents in Wartime Berlin, Jaguar was Jewish, lesbian, working with a Nazi paper for a living and helping the resistance movement. In short, she was living a charmed life in the heart of the Nazi capital. Her lesbian relationship with Aimee, a housewife with children, blossomed in this atmosphere of extreme danger, taking advantage of the absence of men who are away in the battlefields. An extremely well made movie, it is largely set around 1943-44, during the time air battles raged over Berlin nightly. Its narration starts with a Beethoven concert in Berlin when an air raid disrupts the performance. The film features some iconic images of the city of Berlin under the bombing onslaught. The searchlights piercing the cloudy sky, the massive bombing raids by allied air forces culminating in some deadly fireworks, and finally the mesmerising dark orange glow of the burning city visible over the frozen horses atop Brandenburg Gate form lasting images of a city under siege.

The most authentic recreation of Berlin during the last days of Nazi regime was in Der Untergang (2004) by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Surrounded by Soviet forces from all sides, the city of Berlin explodes under bombings and street fighting as the Nazi regime implodes upon itself. Hitler’s descent into madness and delirium, the scramble to flee the burning city by his once trusted comrades, and the bizarre final chapter to the end of the Nazis has been meticulously captured in this excellent film. The glow of incandescent lamps and the drab concrete surroundings of the Fuhrer bunker simply serve to highlight the dark mood prevailing inside. Outside, Berlin is being battered and bombed out of existence by the Russians. The fire and the noise and the rubble and human detritus are the images of a war being fought street by street make up the outdoor scenes. Like the desperate surgeon trying to help the wounded, or the young boy simply trying to stay alive, this is an authentic portrait of a city in the middle of a war. Bruno Granz gives a powerful performance as Hitler, who steadily looses his grip on reality and power as the Nazi regime crumbles in fire and smoke. This is one of the most faithful recreations of a “city at war” on celluloid, and can be compared with the detail that went into recreating war-torn Stalingrad’s urban landscape during the filming of Enemy at the Gates (2001) by Jean-Jacques Annaud.

For eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin capitulated to the Red Army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents.This haunting diary formed the basis of a powerful new movie set during this last phase of the war in Berlin, Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin (2008), by Max Farberbock, featuring a sparkling performance from renowned actress Nina Hoss as the anonymous woman. The film opens with the fall of Berlin, and proceeds to record, through this woman’s clear-eyed and unsentimental observation, its resident’s struggle to get by in the rubble without food, heat or water, and the shameful indignities to which women in a conquered city are subjected to – abuse and mass rape suffered by all, regardless of age or infirmity. The film is about how, throughout this ordeal, this woman maintains her resilience, decency and fierce will to come through her city’s trial until normalcy and safety return.

After sixty five years of the end of the War, the German cities have been lovingly restored to their pre-war glory, but there is no denying that their Nazi past has directly shaped the urban landscape here. The images of these cities come back to haunt us from these and other films that depict their sinister past during the Nazi era. Germany’s confrontation with its Nazi past is not yet over, and its cities are waiting to reveal more of themselves in many forthcoming films. We are hopeful…

(All pictures used in this article have been taken from the Internet)

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Ratul Jash is a senior IT professional from Kolkata. His interests include cinema and history.
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