Deutschland bleiche Mutter (Germany, Pale Mother) (1980)
Director: Helma Sanders-Brahms.
Starring: Eva Mattes (Lene), Ernst Jacobi (Hans), Elisabeth Stepanek (Hanne), Angelika Thomas (Lydia), Rainer Friedrichsen (Ulrich), Gisela Stein (Aunt Ihmchen Fritzen), Fritz Lichtenhahn (Uncle Bertrand Fritzen), Anna Sanders (Anna).
a German woman and her daughter try to survive while the father is away fighting; dad returns and it gets worse
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
The film begins with a poem by Bertold Brecht, 1933.
The narrator is the daughter of Hans and Lene. She starts her story by saying that her father Hans was rowing on a lake with his Nazi friend, Ulrich. Ulrich notices a black-haired woman named Lene who he knows. A group of Nazis follow the woman. She turns around and takes a swing with her satchel to tell the Nazis to stay back. The German Shepherd grabs her clothes but soon lets her go. Ulrich the Nazi says about her: "A real German woman." He says she is one of seven beautiful sisters. She is the only one who has black hair. All the others are blondes.
At work Ulrich tells his boss that the Nazis will rule the world. He adds that they'll soon deal with the socialists. Hans works with him. He is not a member of the Nazi party.
The narrator says that her aunt, her mother's sister, loved the Nazi. Unfortunately. One night she was very sad and upset. She came to her sister Lene for comfort. She says Ulrich has a photograph of a girl, who he says, is the girl for him. She is from Nuremburg and they are engaged. Lene tells her sister that Ulrich is not good enough for her. "Drop him!" she says. The sisters suddenly hear a big bang from outside. They look out the window and see their neighbor Rachel Bernstein being taken away. Sister tells Lene that Rachel is Jewish. (It's like she is saying, oh that's natural because she's Jewish you know.) Lene tells her sister that she is going to marry Hans.
Lene and Hans marry. They go to live in his home. They sit on the bed and he takes off her bridal veil. Lene observes that at least there's no photograph of Hitler over their bed. Frau Meierholt said they needed one in order to have better babies. Hans just laughs at the idea.
Ulrich and his fiancÚ come to Lene's home. He says: "Heil Hitler! on your birthday." Lene warns her sister that the woman from Nuremburg is here. Ulrich blurts out to his fiancÚ that lucky Hans has been called up. He's going to Poland. When Lene hears this she is so shocked she drops the tray she is carrying. Ulrich is staying behind which Lene doesn't think is just. She tells Hans that maybe he should have joined the Nazi party.
The daughter narrates that Hans was sent to kill, but he wasn't really capable of that. In Poland German soldiers kill a male civilian and then the two women with him. Hans cries. His comrades criticize him saying that German soldiers don't cry. He says one of the women looked so much like his wife. And these people did nothing wrong to them. Hans comes in for more mockery. With cigarettes they pass out condoms to the soldiers. Hans refuses to take one. The soldiers whoop with laughter. He says he loves his wife and they howl even more. On his bed the men use condoms to write out the word love in German on Hans's bunk.
At home sister tells Lene that their female neighbor lost her husband in the war. Today she is going to the ceremony. Sister then tells Lene that Hans is still alive. Lene says that it's been two weeks since his last letter. Lene is making a fancy blouse for when her husband comes home. Now she needs some red thread. The only ones in the area that have red thread are the Ducksteins. But, says sister, they are Jews. Lene doesn't care. She walks over to their store/house. The house is marked up with lots of stars of David. An old woman is there and she tells Lene that the Ducksteins are gone. Lene explains that she needs red thread and the old woman seems offended that Lene is worrying about red thread while the Ducksteins are in big danger. A little later the old lady relents and invites her in. She gives Lene some red thread and lots of blue thread. Lene gives her some money and then is hurried out the door.
Hans comes back home. He is anxious to have sex with his wife. But Lene tells him it's too fast. He asks her if he is so different now? She says no. He tells her he has traveled for three days for this moment with her. He asks her if she is now with that Nazi Ulrich? He slaps her, but then grabs her. She leaves. At night she is friendlier to Hans. She says she wants a child with him so that she will have a part of him with her when he is away. She also asks him why must he go back? After all, Poland has been defeated. Hans tells her he is going to France.
Hans eats alone at a restaurant in France. He sees a French woman that looks like his wife. He takes out of his pocket a picture of his wife and in French tells the woman that this is his wife. Later Hans is shocked to see the woman going to her execution. The Germans line up eight people, including women, and execute them by firing squad.
During an air raid, Lene gives birth to a baby girl, who she names Anna. The daughter narrator says that she was born on a battlefield. She adds: "So much I hadn't seen was already destroyed." Hans is on his way to the Russian front. It's Christmas time. The Germans have a Christmas program on the radio in which various officers call in to say hello from the widely-spread military stations where the Germans are fighting or occupying lands. One fellow calls in from Stalingrad. The air raid sirens sound. Lene takes Anna to an air raid shelter. The city where Lene lives is a real mess with rubble everywhere. During the bombing raid, some of the women scream in fear. Lene tries to comfort one of the women near her. They pass around some liquor bottles. Lene doesn't drink, but this time she imbibes. After the raids are finished, she walks over to where her house once stood. She throws up on the massive pile of rubble which is the only thing that remains to her and her family. Lene tells a man who helped her that she will remain here to wait for her husband.
Lene and Anna are walking to Berlin with Lene in high heels no less. On her way she meets a boy who has been looking for his missing parents for six weeks. She finds the home of her relatives the Fritzens. Dr. Fritzen works for the Air Ministry. The workers on the house tell Lene that the owners are going to the country. The daughter narrator comments that the Fritzens were their rich relatives. She adds: "I couldn't stand them, even then." Mrs. Fritzen comes down to greet them. They then go upstairs to greet Mr. Fritzen. Lene says that Hans is coming to Berlin next week and she would like to remain in the house to meet him at the railroad station. The Fritzens agree to let her stay, while they go to the country.
Lene and Anna go down to the railway station, but no Hans. A soldier there tells her that her husband's unit, the 230th Infantry Regiment, already came in and the men are already in their barracks. Lene walks to the barracks only to find that Hans's regiment is not there. Discouraged, she starts walking away. Hans sees her and Anna from behind them and runs to her. They embrace.
Back in the Fritzen home, Lene tells Hans that their house was bombed into rubble. She only has her silverware left. Hans tells her that for Germany it will either be victory or destruction. Later Hans tells Lene that Anna's screaming is really getting on his nerves. Lene says Anna's nervous because of the air raids. Hans tells Lene that he wants her to go to the countryside. Saxony and Silesia are very quiet areas. The time arrives for Hans to leave. He puts on his gear quickly, says goodbye and leaves quickly.
Lene walks with Anna on her shoulders. She is going to the countryside where her husband told her to go. Coming across a dead body in the snow, she takes the neck wrap from the body and wears it.
The news of the day is their Fuhrer Adolf Hitler died today fighting the Bolsheviks.
Now Lene and Anna start walking back to Berlin. The see a dead German soldier. Berlin is a mess. Most of the buildings are damaged badly. Two American soldiers come across Lene and Anna. They rape Anna. Lene and Anna ride the trains between box cars. In Berlin she trades cigarettes for silverware and then tires to trade the cigarettes for eggs. She runs into her sister. Hans is in Greece. The two sisters stay in a house crowded with people.
The women start cleaning up the war damage. They use buckets and a bucket line to move the bricks out. American soldiers give the children cigarettes.
Hans come back. He and Lene hug. Then Hans hugs his daughter. Sis baby sits Anna so the couple can be alone. Lenne and Hans try to have sex. Lene says she can't do it. Hans says he can't do it either. They agree that it's been too long a time since they last saw each other. They agree they will try again when they get used to each other.
Ulrich finds Hans. They are both glad to see each other. Hans says he's alive. Ulrich says he's alive too, but denazified. He says hello to Anna. Ulrich tell Anna to go tell dad he's a wierdoo. She does so and dad goes ballistic. He really spanks her hard and long. Ulrich tells Hans that he has no sense of humor.
At home Hans brusquely tells Anna to write her words neatly. Lene tells him to leave Anna alone. Hans accuses her of having had another man. Lene becomes so disgusted that she says she is going to bed. Dad goes out of the room and Anna goes out a little later.
Lene has been having problems with her face. Hans comes in and says that he has been promoted. Lene shows him that something's wrong with her face. He takes her to a doctor but lands up with a dentist. He takes out all her teeth. The dentist tells them that if he had hadn't take out her teeth the facial paralysis would have spread. Lene cries and cries. From then on she keeps the left side of her face covered so people can't see it. At home Anna prepares soup for her mother and brings it to her bed on a tray. Lene picks it up and throws it in her daughter's face.
The family visits the Fritzens and have supper with them. Hans explains that Lene suffers from facial paralysis. Anna gets up from the table and defecates on the floor. Lene runs over to her and says it's okay. Mom tells the others that she will clean up the mess.
Ulrich and his wife, sis and Hans sit at the table having fun. Lene lays in bed. German leader Adenauer speaks on the radio. Ulrich's wife says her husband is being promoted again to a much better position than that held by Hans.
At night Lene gets out of bed and starts pulling out all the drawers and emptying their contents on the floor. Hans comes out and she moans and cries that she needs love. She adds: "You-ve ruined everything for me. You want to kill me." She then says that she will kill Hans. Anna comes out to see what's the matter. Hans gets dressed and goes out. Lene calls out for him but he does not stop. Anna tries her best to comfort her mother.
Lene tells her husband twice that she doesn't want to live anymore. He tells her: "I don't either." He leaves. Lene goes into the bathroom and closes the door. She blow out the pilot light on the heater, but turns the gas up full blast. Anna bangs on the door begging her mother to please come out. She tells her mother not to leave her alone.
Anna the narrator says: "It was a long time before Lene opened the door. Sometimes I think she's still behind it. And I'm still standing outside and she'll never come out to me. And I had to grow up all alone."
Good movie. Lene and Hans were not Nazis, while his friend Ulrich was. But they all had to suffer through what happened to Germany because of Adolf Hitler. The film shows some of the suffering inflicted on the Germans by the Allies. Films of Berlin after the war show just how badly Berlin had been bombed and bombed. But through the war and the long separations from her husband, Lene stood tall and persevered. She even had to walk for days to get to the countryside. And then she walked and rode the trains back home to Berlin. She said she even enjoyed cleaning up Berlin with the other women. But when her husband returned everything started to fall apart. There was a gulf between her daughter Anna and her husband with dad being too hard on his daughter. Lene had to tell him to leave Anna alone. And then out of nowhere comes the facial paralysis of the left side of Lene's face. To fight the paralysis a dentist took out all her teeth. Now she had to hide the left side of her face from everyone. She became very depressed and this further pushed she and her husband apart. Lene decided she wanted to die. Only Anna's cries prevented Lene from killing herself.
What a sad story. The first three-quarters were pretty good. And it was established that Lene was one tough cookie -- a survivor. She couldn't be crushed by the war, but she is by illness. It seems that there are two Lenes in the film with little relationship to one another. What she suffered from should not have destroyed her -- a survivor. But it did with devastating impact on her daughter Anna. So the question is: why did Lene just fall apart? If she didn't suffer from depression during the war when she was all alone, why would she when she became ill? The two Lenes just don't fit together. Perhaps Lene broke down with the accumulation of stress, but then you couldn't call her a survivor.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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