Habermann -- Film Review

The devastating fate of three million Germans in Czechoslovakia after World War II is the basis of a film that attempts an epic sweep and falls somewhat short.  

BERLIN — It takes a brave soul to tackle a World War II film about the atrocities directed against the Germans at war’s end. Czech director Juraj Herz is that brave soul. His "Habermann," set in German-Czech inhabited Sudetenland, succeeds in giving neither side an inch. The film has its flaws in storytelling due to the unwieldy size of its narrative but strong performances and an unwavering observation of inhumanity on all sides make "Habermann" a provocative film.

International theatrical prospects fall to arthouse releases possibly geared towards ethnic groups interested in this particular subject, with DVD and television being a better bet thanks to the films above-average production values. Corinth Films will distribute in the U.S.

Herz opens his film with a sequence of wanton cruelty and destruction. An angry mob loots houses while forcing the inhabitants into the streets and towards railroad cars. People are severely beaten and humiliated. One woman’s face is even smashed into the urine-soaked portrait of her country’s leading politician, someone she never voted for and cared for even less.

The year is 1945, the ground she kneels on will be Czechoslovakia once again and she was married to a German. So coming in contact with a smelly Hitler-portrait is the least of her worries. The film then flashes back eight years. The woman’s husband, August Habermann, is a well-liked industrialist of German heritage, born in the Sudetenland, where Germans and Czechs have co-existed in relative peace for hundreds of years. Even when the country is annexed by Nazi Germany via the Munich Pact, he expresses doubt that things are really going to change. Rather he concentrates his work, his Czech wife Jana and their newborn child.

When the Nazis finally arrive in this quaint corner of Europe, some of his Czech workers take up arms and pamphlets. He tries to protect them the best he can, but is unable to stop the extortion, torture and killings perpetrated by the Nazis. Nor can he to imagine that what friends and co-workers have in store for him might be even worse.

Herz handles this difficult subject with political savvy and honest convictions, never really tipping the scales towards either side. For him, the war is of lesser importance than what it turns people into. While a select few of his characters become heroes or at least show some morality, others are use the vagaries of war as an excuse for a free-for-all with no dearth of turncoats, informers and cowards on the Czech side.

In the end, Habermann’s fate is not determined by what he did during the war, but by anguished victims eager to blame anybody and envious, greedy workers who are suddenly in power.

Unfortunately, the film, penned by Wolfgang Limmer, tries to handle all these different characters, stories and a good chunk of history in a scant 104 minutes, leading Herz to rush from scene to scene and only rarely allowing an emotional moment to reach its full impact.

The birth of Habermann’s daughter, the Munich Pact, the girl’s christening and the arrival of the first Nazis seem to have happened in one afternoon. Other scenes are needlessly confusing, perhaps only two simple expositional shots away from clarity.

The dialogue also occasionally turns into slogans: “The heart, after all, does not differentiate between races” and “What’s the nationality of electricity?” Most members of the cast can pull even these off with reasonable conviction.

Mark Waschke performs a bona fide leading man turn as the protagonist, making his incredibly selfless behavior believable. Hannah Herzsprung and Karel Roden deliver unforgettable turns as his wife and best friend respectively. The same cannot be said of Wilson Gonzalez Ochsenknecht as Habermann’s younger, pro-Nazi brother, who sulks his way through his lines without a trace of nuance or believability.

Alexander Surkala’s cinematography is top notch, as are other production values other than Elia Cmiral’s score. The music mostly heavy-handed, then vanishes until it’s time for another melodramatic assault.

Habermann is a serious film about a subject that long deserved its due. Its flaws are neither fatal nor do they completely take away its impact. They just limit what could have been an important film to being a decent film about something important.

Opens: Nov. 25 in Germany
Production companies: Art Oko Film, KN Filmcompany, Wega-Film, Werner Herzog Film, Apollomedia
Cast: Mark Waschke, Karel Roden, Hannah Herzsprung, Ben Becker, Wilson Gonzalez Ochsenknecht, Franziska Weisz
Director: Juraj Herz
Screenwriter: Wolfgang Limmer
Producer: Karel Dirka
Director of photography: Alexander Surkala
Production designer: Petr Fort
Music: Elia Cmiral
Costume designer: Simona Rybáková
Editor: Melanie Werwie
No rating, 104 minutes