Germany, Pale Mother is a unrelentingly bleak film, made all the more so by the fact that it is a semi-autobiographical portrait of Helma Sanders-Brahms parents. The film covers about a decade or so in their lives, from newlyweds in Hitler's Germany to the reconstruction post- German era.
We first hear of Lene before we see her. Hans, and his friend Ulrich, spot her walking along the bank as they are boating along a river. Despite the fact that Hans finds her attractive he watches impassively as a dog belonging to some Nazi party members attack her, but is most impressed by the fact that she doesn't scream or flinch. They later attend a dance together and Lene asks him if he's a member of the Nazi party, something that's important to her, though she seems fairly apolitical and doesn't have strong feelings about the Nazis, even when she watches them haul off one of her Jewish neighbours. Lene and Hans marry and are quite happy together, but the happiness is short lived. Since he's a low level civil servant, who isn't even a member of the party he is quickly conscripted into the army to go fight in Poland, the first in several professional setbacks he will face as a result of not joining the Nazis. Things are great for Lene either. Though the early years of the war mostly involve waiting around for her husband to come home from leave and ignoring the fact that more and more Jewish families are being hauled off, the evil of the war will come and visit her much later.
I've often heard it said that in the most personal stories we find universal truths and this certainly is true in this film. Sanders-Brahms settles her point of view almost exclusively on her mother and her parents' marriage and yet it manages to cover so much, from the way in which Germans, even non-Nazis, ended up participating in the war through their willingness to look the other way, to the way in which Nazi corruption continued after the war. By focusing on her mother, Sanders-Brahms also turns some conventional wisdoms on their head. While the men were off fighting abroad, Lene has a difficult life, but she manages to get along, become independent, taking care of herself and her child. Some of the worst things that happen to her happen during "peace" and reconstruction, times when the men who are supposed to protect her betray her in horrible ways.
Eva Mattes, as Lene, has by far the showiest role and she is pretty fantastic in it. The real star though is Sanders-Brahms direction. There are so many bold choices, from using herself as a voice-over, splicing in documentary footage of a little boy being interviewed so that it looks as if he is having a conversation with Lene, a shot of the swastika reflected in a pool of water, which are haunting and poignant.
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