History & Film: Scarecrows & Angel Makers


The majority of historical series and films set in twentieth-century Germany take place during the twelve-year period between 1933 and 1945, focussing on the Third Reich and the Second World War. The post-war era is less well represented, although the decades following the defeat of Hitler represent a crucial chapter in the history of Germany and its transition into a stable democracy. Many of the events taking place during the 1950s and 1960s continue to impact modern-day Europe, among them the physical and political division of the continent, the Cold War, and the armament race between the superpowers, America and Russia.

At the same time, new generations of Germans, the first of whom grew up under Hitler and had to live with the consequences of his murderous politics, began to look critically at their country’s past. In time, they addressed the ‘conspiracy of silence’ on the side of their elders in regard to the horrors of the Holocaust and the ideological indoctrination of children, as well as the deployment of underage boys and girls in the Nazis’ cruel war.

Directors and filmmakers, along with writers and artists, played a vital role in ushering in this discussion, including Fred Zinneman, The Search (1948), Roberto Rossellini, Germany Hour Zero (1948), Billy Wilder, A Foreign Affair (1948), Stanley Kramer, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Werner Maria Fassbender, The Marriage of Maria Braun (“Die Ehe der Maria Braun,” 1979) and Vojtěch Jasný, The Clown (“Der Clown,” 1976). More recently, Stephen Daldry, The Reader (“Der Leser,” 2008), Cate Shortland, Lore (2013), and Christian Petzold Phoenix (2015) stand out as masterly filmic portrayals of Germany’s attempts to come to terms with its difficult history.

In terms of pertinent television, perhaps no effort can equal the monumental work of Edgar Reitz’s Homeland (“Heimat,” 1984-2013), which tells the story of a German family in the Rhineland-Palatinate region between 1840 and 2000 in five films or thirty-two episodes, adding up to almost sixty hours of viewing time. Not nearly as long but of excellent quality is Alexander Dierbach’s two-part series Line of Separation (“Tannbach,” 2015-2018) the fictionalized depiction of the Bavarian town of Mödlareuth, which the Americans called ‘Little Berlin’ because it was divided along its river by a wall and a death strip, just like the German capital. The two seasons of Line of Separation cover the period between the Allied liberation and the suppression of the 1968 Czech Revolution with the aid of the East German military. The narrative switches between the Eastern and the Western sectors of Tannbach, as the village is called in the show.

Line of Separation currently airs in the United States on PBS, while The Defeated (“Shadowplay,” 2020), another series dealing with the political and personal fallout from the Second World War, is available on Netflix. The shows have several aspects in common, as they expose the immense scale of destruction the war inflicted on Germany, as well as the moral malaise and despair experienced by its people after they faced up to the disastrous consequences of their blind faith in Hitler.

Line of Separation begins during the final days of the war. Although the Americans are due to invade Tannbach, the SS still wreaks havoc, executing suspected deserters and forcibly preventing Eastern European refugees from settling in their village. When the local countess, Caroline von Striesov, stands up to the SS officer Horst Voeckler, and not only offers to host the fugitives on her estate, but refuses to disclose the hiding place of her husband who has gone AWOL from the Wehrmacht, Horst orders his firing squad to assassinate her.

Unbeknownst to Horst, Caroline’s husband and her daughter, Georg and Anna von Striesov, are present in the manor house and witness her murder. But while Georg refuses to intervene in his wife’s killing and later blames the Voeckler clan and Horst’s despotic father Franz for Caroline’s death, Anna will forever be unable to forgive her father for his cowardice and for looking the other way while her mother perished.

After Tannbach is divided into East (Soviet) and West (American), Caroline’s death has far-reaching consequences. Whereas Georg, a former Hitler supporter and political conservative, builds a successful business in the West and becomes once again prosperous, Anna, convinced that the Federal Republic of Germany is a haven for opportunists and profiteers like her father, marries the Communist Friedrich Erler and throws her lot in with the German Democratic Republic. The series accompanies Anna, her idealistic husband, their Jewish friend Lothar, and their three children as they live through the formative years of the GDR and experience its decline into a tyranny largely ruled by the East German Secret Service.

Although their final hopes for a fair, egalitarian society are crushed when the Soviet Bloc armies put an end to the Velvet Revolution, Anna’s group forms the warm heart of the Line of Separation. In contrast, the plot lines revolving around capitalist and sometime spy Georg and his succession of wives, as well as the crimes and misdemeanours of the Voeckler family in West Germany, feel more remote and chilling. The first series is superior in quality to the second, which abandons its original, quiet focus on German moral guilt and individual responsibility in favour of fast-paced action and cold war criminal intrigue.

Criminal intrigue also lies at the heart of Netflix’s The Defeated. The show is set in 1946, two years before the division of the country. Like an avenging angel, Max McLaughlin, a straight-talking detective from Brooklyn, descends upon the hell that is now Berlin. He has come to help volunteer Elsie Garten organize a more efficient police force, turning her officers from derided ‘scarecrows’ into respected representatives of the law. Crime is running rampant in the German capital. Herrmann Gladow, also known as the ‘angel maker,’ helps the women of Berlin to rid themselves of their unwanted progeny after they have been raped by occupying soldiers. He also runs a gang that commits a string of increasingly more violent robberies and murders, undermining the reconstruction of post-war German civil society. However, Max has another reason to be in Berlin. He is searching for his lost brother, a possible madman and killer, who is putting concentration camp guards to death before the Allies can arrest and try them in court. A race against time begins as Max and Elsie attempt to apprehend these two, very different perpetrators.

Like Line of Separation, The Defeated is based on historical fact. Over 100,000 women and girls were raped and frequently murdered during the final Battle over Berlin. The fictional aspect of the story enters in with the character of Herrmann Gladow, who harnesses this large-scale injustice to exploit the women’s suffering for his own ends — the collection of military secrets he sells to the highest bidders. The supplemental plot revolves around Max’s brother Moritz, a Nazi hunter, and the sale of looted art, the proceeds from which enable former fascists to flee Allied justice.

Produced by a Swedish team, the atmosphere is Nordic noir, with a breath-taking German twist. Unfortunately, what is lost in this almost mythical battle against the larger-than-life monsters Gladow and Moritz is the more realistic depiction of post-war Germany’s transformation into the principal battleground of the Cold War. Even so, The Defeated, like Line of Separation, is an effort to be welcomed, centring the attention of audiences on an era in history that is often neglected but bears examining in order to make sense of Europe in the second half of the twentieth century.

About the contributor: Elisabeth reviews regularly for the Historical Novel Society. A member of its Social Media Team, she posts and tweets to its members on Wednesdays. She teaches literature and is at work on a novel about a 20th Century German Jewish family.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 103 (February 2023)

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