GERMANY, PALE MOTHER (Helma Sanders-Brahms, 1979)

Principally about her mother and herself as a child, and their close relationship, during the Second World War while their husband and father fought at the Eastern front, writer-director Helma Sanders-Brahms’s Deutschland bleiche Mutter is so sharply distinctive that it affects the viewer in a fresh way. It is definitely a very odd, very touching film. After the war, during the occupation of Germany, two American soldiers—pigs—rob and rape Helene (“Lene”) while she is relocating by foot with her little daughter. Anna, who has been patiently waiting for her to regain consciousness, kisses her mother. The sweetness of the child’s impulsive act is piercing. This film is full of lovely things like that.
     War breaks out, dividing Lene and Hans, the day after their wedding ceremony, and their subsequent brief reunions find them near strangers to one another, and Hans a stranger to his daughter. In the meantime, Allied bombing has destroyed their house, setting Lene on a peripatetic course of seeking shelter and doing her best to care for Anna. An index of the war’s discombobulating impact on Lene is the Grimm brothers fairy tale, full of gore and horror, that she recites to Anna as they make their way through a fairy-tale forest. It is to be hoped that Hitler and the war were all a dream. In this context it is relevant that Hans never joined the Nazi Party.
     After the war, this very fact initially accrues to Hans’s benefit at work. (This does not last, however.) Meanwhile, Hans and Lene are more strangers than ever to each other because the war years have so profoundly changed each of them. Lene has become a sexual cripple as a result of the rape, about which she shares nothing with Hans, who suspects her of infidelity and abuses her accordingly. Half of Lene’s face falls victim to paralysis, Lene withdraws and becomes suicidal, and Anna does her best to care for the mother she continues to rely on and adore. A scene in which Lene locks herself in the bathroom, intending to commit suicide, while Anna at the door softly pleads for her mother to come out is wrenching.
     Sanders-Brahms is especially generous toward her mother and herself, and all the more compelling for her lack of sentimentality. This befits a film that begins with the recitation of a Brecht poem—by Brecht’s own daughter, which underscores the film’s focus on family relations, memories, love.
     Eva Mattës was perhaps cast, at least in part, because she had played Büchner’s Marie, a similarly put-upon role, in Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck (1976). Mattës is excellent as Lene.

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