German movies are making headway into mainstream international cinema (“Perfume” and “Head On” leap to the mind), opening up a new window from which to view stories of love, obsession, history and war. “Dresden” takes all these themes and weaves them into one episode: the bombing of Dresden during World War II.
Dresden was then compared to Italy’s Firenze in terms of sheer beauty and as the hub of German academia and arts. It was also known as the “defenseless city” as it was ill-equipped with the defense batteries required to withstand a full-scale air attack. On Feb. 13, 1945 British planes began bombing the stately city and when the Allies finally called off the strikes three days later, the once beautiful city had been reduced to rubble. The German Government reported the death toll at more than 460,000, while many historians estimate the number at around 25,000 — a sore topic of debate that continues to this day.
During the postwar years, the East German government repeatedly held the Dresden bombing over the heads of the West, and consequently the truth about its horrors never really came to light. Until the late 1990s records and research materials were not made available for viewing. As for movies, the number made about Nazi atrocities far exceeded the number that depict Germans as victims; one can imagine the difficulty of getting any funds for such productions. In that sense it’s a marvel “Dresden” was created at all, and on such a lavish scale. The budget is reputed to be over 10 million euro: the highest in the history of German cinema. Directed by Roland Suso Richter (“Tunnel”), the film was originally made for German TV, then shown at various film festivals before making it to Japan.
“Dresden” is in many ways a classic and largely formulaic World War II movie: richly hued, gorgeously lit, well-behaved (no wise-cracking at all) and relentlessly melodramatic. The gravity of the proceedings is so thick you can stick a diving board into the ambience and jump off it. On the other hand it attests to an era in Germany when people were anxious, scared and desperate. And though we’ve seen war movies a thousand times before, the scene of a young woman stripped naked and made to stand on a bridge in sub-zero temperature — while next to her the corpse of a British POW hangs from a pole (her crime was to take in a wounded enemy soldier into her home) — hits the vision with the force of a blunt instrument.
But “Dresden” is first and foremost a love story, albeit one that’s slow-burning and stoic. (This after all is a German war movie.) Anna (Felicitas Woll) works as a nurse at her father’s hospital and becomes engaged to the precise, bit-of-a-bore doctor Alexander (Benjamin Sadler). Being dedicated to her job, Anna doesn’t give way to any prenuptial joy and continues to pull ever longer shifts. And it’s on one of these that she meets Robert (John Light), a British Air Force pilot who has been shot down and is hiding out in Anna’s hospital. Out of fascination with a wounded, handsome foreigner, Anna dresses his wounds and brings him food and finds herself getting more than a little involved, until duty and loyalty prompt her to forget Robert and make wedding plans with Alexander. But her good intentions come too late — Alexander has already detected an enemy presence and conspires with Anna’s father to hand Robert over to the Gestapo.
There isn’t much in “Dresden” you haven’t seen before, but Richter crafts the story so that it seems like a war movie from the other side, i.e., the (relatively) democratic Allied side. In a movie made by a German, set in Germany and featuring a German cast, the Nazis are viewed with fear and animosity, if not as the outright enemy. The operative emotion here is not a wish for victory but a longing for love and freedom. Anna’s face (with those classic features and cream-and-roses complexion) registers all these things with breathless passion and a touching tremulousness — as a war movie heroine, she’s almost too perfect.
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