Brilliant and desperately shocking love tragedy
25 November 2017
This may perhaps be the greatest cinematic triumph of the celebrated career of director Andrzej Wajda. It was shot in German, with a few sections in Polish, and its original title is EINE LIEBE IN DEUTSCHLAND, from a novel of the same title by Rolf Hochhuth. But the film appears never to have been released on DVD and is only to be found on rare video tapes dating from 1984, of which I have one. Although IMDb records the film as being 2 hours 12 minutes long, the video I have is only 107 minutes, so that 25 minutes has been cut from it. The film's story alternates back and forth between 1943 and 1983, not always smoothly, suggesting that scenes are missing which would have made the transitions of time smoother and less abrupt. I wonder if we shall ever see the director's cut of this unnerving masterpiece. I see from German Amazon that the old German video is for sale at a substantial price, but the duration of that version is 102 minutes, hence 5 minutes less than the one with English subtitles. The film's most astonishing aspect is the staggeringly brilliant performance by Hanna Schygulla as the female lead. Suitably for this Polish-German amalgam, Schygulla herself is a Polish-German amalgam, as she was born in 1943 (the same year in which this film's earlier story is set) in what was then Germany but is now Poland. To say that the performance by Schygulla takes one's breath away and leaves one in a state of shock is an understatement. This is one of the greatest feats of screen acting of the 1980s anywhere in the world. All of the performances are excellent, and Wajda's invisible hand guides all before it without any 'style' or mannerisms or intrusions of the director's presence. We really do truly believe that we are watching real events take place before us, so riveting is it all, but also so intimate and upsetting. A co-writer of the screenplay was Agnieszka Holland, later herself so famous as a director (her greatest film was WASHINGTON SQUARE, 1997, see my review). The film begins with a man in his forties travelling by train with his son to revisit a small town where he says he has formerly lived much earlier in his life. Throughout the story we do not know who he really is, though he goes around questioning people and trying to find individuals (one of whom is on the verge of death in a hospital). He goes, for instance, into a shop and asks what has happened to the woman who used to run it. We get continual flashbacks to 1943 and see a powerful and tragic love story unfolding between a married German woman, whose husband is away in the army, and a young Polish prisoner of war who has been sent to work in the town as 'slave labour'. I don't think I have ever seen a woman convey passion so intensely on screen as Schygulla does in portraying her mad love for the boy, played by Piotr Lysak (who left the film industry in 1988 and never appeared in anything after that). Their love scenes are just about as emotionally convincing as it is possible to get in a film. He is excellent. And the scariest portrayal in the film is not of one of the many Nazis, but of Maria Wyler by the French actress Marie-Christine Barrault (niece of Jean-Louis Barrault and widow of Roger Vadim). Rarely has a jealous, grasping, ruthless woman been interpreted with such total horror and viciousness as we see here. All of these performances are of the most extreme subtlety, bordering on the miraculous. But the true horror of the film is the raw depiction of what the German population was like in 1943, with Nazi fanaticism in torrential flow throughout the whole of daily life. Ordinary people say Heil Hitler! to each other in shops and on the street as routinely as Catholics say the Rosary. If you don't reply in kind you are denounced. The vicious contempt and hatred for the Poles shown by all the Germans except Schygulla is mind-boggling. And the things even the nicest people say about how important it is to be members of the Master Race makes clear that the entire German people at that time seem to have been infected with the most virulent mental virus imaginable, and have been effectively reduced to the status of mad dogs. It is against the law for a German woman to have intimate relations with a Pole, and the sentence for that is death. The reason for this is that the Poles are vermin and 'Untermenschen' and contact with them is an insult to the Master Race and a form of deadly contagion. Sweet, thoughtful and kind people say these things readily, without even thinking, and clearly without the slightest comprehension that they are all mad. There may never have been so devastating a depiction of German intolerance and insanity during the Nazi period as in this film. No wonder it is not available on DVD; the European Union must have issued a fatwah against it and said anyone possessing a copy must be terminated with extreme prejudice. There is perhaps no single film more calculated to show the reasons for the deep hatred of the Germans by the Poles, which we see played out in today's politics, by the way. The devastating emotional impact of this incredible film means that it is one of the most shocking films ever made. And by that I do not mean that it shows blood and gore, battles, ghosts, spaceships, sci fi monsters, or any of the usual things which are meant to shock. What this shows is what takes place between people and what is done to people by other people. And what can be more horrifying and ultimately unsettling than that?
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