In 1944 the war was all but over, and everyone pretty much knew
it except the German people. It was only a matter of time before
the Nazi regime tumbled, but perhaps it was that very certainty
that led the Nazis to step up the atrocities towards German Jews
that had being going on for the duration of the war. This film
does a haunting job of presenting a nation on the brink of defeat.
While the radios pratter endlessly about the invincibility of
the German people, Berlin lies in ruins, a bombed-out shell of
the glorious city it had been. Against this backdrop of World
War II, two women lived an extraordinary true story upon which
this film is loosely based.
Felice (Maria Schrader) is a Jewess posing as a Christian. She's
also a lesbian and an active member of the German underground,
all very good reasons for her to want to stay out of the way of
the Gestapo. She meets Lilly Wust, an exemplary German housewife
with four children and a Nazi husband. Lilly is unfaithful, and
seemingly quite cold, but it seems mostly that her bahaviour is
a cry for help because she is deeply unsatisfied with her life.
The sexual awakening she feels through Felice, and the danger
of living moment-to-moment in this war-torn city, servces to thaw
Lilly out and she becomes almost as passionate about her new life
Felice's secret identity involves her being a secretary at a
German newspaper. In one fascinating scene we see her being forced
to take dictation for an anti-semitic piece, and the horror that
flashes through her eyes, the disgust she feels with herself and
her country, is palpable. She must keep her cover or die, but
the scene shows her as a woman of immense pride, which we come
to see as Felice's greatest strength, and one of her ultimate
The initial scenes between the two women are perhaps the most
interesting. Is Lilly just trying to get her husband's attention?
Is Felice just one more notch in her belt? As for Felice, is she
just using this conceited, hapless housewife because she's suddenly
become homeless and needs the security of it? Or is there something
more in this burgeoning passion?
Their relationship blooms. As the Gestapo get closer and closer
to discovering Felice, she decides to play it safe and see out
the rest of the war with Lilly. (I'll admit I was a bit confused
here as to the role she was playing in the underground and how
much her decision to be with Lilly affected the lives of her underground/lesbian
friends) Their passion escalates, and the film maintains the perfect
level of tension between their love and the risk of discovery.
Both the women need the relationship to work, for more reasons
than just their emotional involvement in it. The film links the
survival of their passion with their actual survival, in a technique
designed to heighten the suspense.
Then an odd thing happens. I begin to think that perhaps the
women are clinging to their relationship, their happiness, at
the expense of what they really should be doing to help end the
misery of the war. It feels like Felice is using Lilly as a way
to hide from her responsibilities, and that Lilly clings to Felice
as a form of protection, rather than out of love. In any case,
the love between them begins to sour. Outwardly the film blames
this on the encroaching Nazi oppressors, but it seems to me to
be more because of the shaky foundations of their relationship.
Although this is based in reality (and it seems odd to question
the ending of a "true" story), the final third of the
film doesn't work quite as well for me as the first two-thirds.
It's like once their world begins unravelling then so does the
tight-knit narrative and direction. I was also puzzled aboutthe
voiceover narration. Not only is it confusing as to who exactly
the narrator is and what stake they have in the story, but wouldn't
it have been better to remove the narrator entirely and spend
more time showing whatever it was they thought they needed
the narrator to tell? It feels at times like the narration was
done as an afterthought, to try and pull together some of the
more vague parts of the plot which even now leave me wondering
what certain parts of the story were really about.
All together though, I don't see how you can watch this tremendous
love story and not be touched by it somehow. Most of my thoughts
about the film's weaknesses came as afterthoughts long after I
had seen the film. Upon first viewing I was both moved and shaken
by the courage of these women. The technically brilliant and revealing
cinematography (and also the detailed set design) ties the love
story together effectively with the horrors of war. The costuming
is superb and the entire production exudes a remarkable attention
to period detail.
While I was never able to shake a lot of my suspicions about
the changeable character of Lilly Wust, I was entranced by the
heroic Felice; by her intelligence, her beauty and her passion.
Historical film buffs will be delighted by this movie, and true
romantics will be inspired by it. My advice is, be sure to have
a good supply of tissues on hand, this is a weeper of the highest
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