Sunday, April 29, 2012

Habermann: a movie on the Sudetenland

Last night I watched the Habermann Mill, a 2010 Czech-German-Austrian movie on the co-existence of Czechs and Germans in the Sudetenland.

The film director, Mr Juraj Herz, is a Slovak-born Czech Jewish chap. Both Czech and German or Austrian actors were hired. I think that the movie was good and frustrating at the same moment. There are many things that suck about the present era but no doubt, the Second World War era was much worse.

A German trailer.

Spoilers: beware

The plot takes place in the Sudetenland, Northern Moravia. It's partly based on the actual events. August Habermann was a genuine historical figure. The other characters are mostly fiction. The way how he was murdered is fiction, too.

The tension between the Czechs and Germans was already manifest in the 1930s. The Czechs usually work in inferior jobs and their clothes are much less aesthetically appealing than the German outfits. There is one totally positive character, August Habermann, the owner of the Habermann family mill which really existed (these days, there's a fancy pension in the Habermann villa).

He employs Czechs without prejudices, before the war and even during the war. His best friend is a Czech forester (who has a German wife) and he marries a Czech wife, Jana, who turns out to be half-Jewish. From the beginning, I expected this issue to be an explosive source of the story but I was wrong. She, a devout Catholic, is actually relatively loyal to the German cause. The reason is that she wasn't really aware of having a Jewish father; however, the birth certificate is aware of that, together with Habermann and some officials.

Habermann's younger brother Hans is an enthusiastic German nationalist who joins Wehrmacht at some point. He returns partly crippled from the Eastern front. It's interesting to watch the brutal Nazi propaganda machine that was trying to hide totally elementary facts such as the fact that the Germany army got spanked by Stalin. Spreading pamphlets informing the citizens about these events was potentially lethal.

(The Czechs were also constantly harassed whenever they spoke Czech – usually without a good reason: you may surely abandon all doubts about the fact that the Czechs were treated in a much worse way during the war than the Germans were treated during the democratic Czechoslovakia.)

The movie has been called "masochist" by some folks because it doesn't really portray Czechs as some innocent heroes facing purely bad and vicious German foes, as many other movies of this kind do. The main hero is a German, after all, and much of the Czech resistance movement that Habermann indirectly helps to support is very primitive. At some point, two Czech peasants shoot two German soldiers in the forest who were innocent and didn't want to do anything wrong.

Germany had a well-defined exchange rate for such situations. For one German who is shot, ten Czechs have to be killed. The local Gestapo officer forces Habermann himself to choose those 20 Czechs who would be shot. He refuses and offers the officer all the family jewels. For the Nazi guy who is ready to be bribed, it turns out to be insufficient, so 10 Czechs still have to be shot. At this point, Habermann already agrees to write something on the piece of paper. But he bravely writes his own name as the name of the scapegoat. After all, as a German, his life is worth 10 Czech lives. The Gestapo officer laughs and takes Habermann to a trip around the village to pick 10 random Czechs. Some people see Habermann in the car so even though he did everything he could to save his Czech lives, this story ultimately becomes the reason why a gang of angry and simple Czechs attack him, torture him, and kill him.

(In the historical story that inspired it, he was probably killed by a drunk Czech barber.)

The Czech-German-Jewish wife and their daughter are expelled rather efficiently. It may sound paradoxical because she is Czech and Jewish but due to her loyalty during the war, it's not that shocking that she was expelled as all Germans without anti-Nazi resistance credentials. She obviously hasn't had any. And Germans who were expelled ultimately benefited because they were saved from communism that overtook our country after the war.

Most of the Czech characters are largely unsophisticated peasants and members of a working class. The Sudetenland has never been considered to be the "intellectual jewel" of Czechia – which is obviously in Prague – but for Germans, it was a beloved homeland. After all, I think that Germans don't love to concentrate themselves and their elites in big cities.

An exception – a wealthy enough guy in elegant suit – was the director of the local spas/hospital, Mr Pospíchal (actor: Hrušínský Jr Jr). An excellent character that made me LOL because he represented the ultra-opportunist attitudes that are so much more characteristic for many Czechs in the real life. When the Nazi army arrives, he greets them with an elegant "Heil Hitler, Sirs" :-) and makes them sure that he is neither a communist nor a Jew and he would collaborate with them. The Czech spa becomes a hospital for German soldiers injured on the battlefront. A kind of a mirror image of the German mill which helps the Czechs.

Of course, this director plays on both sides and at the end of the war, when it's getting clear that Germany would lose, he is collecting evidence showing him as a part of the resistance movement. In a friendly discussion, he tells the Gestapo officer that occupiers come and go, just the Czechs stay here. LOL. The Gestapo officer has already negotiated with some local clergy to get a ticket to Argentina. However, the spa director tells him to avoid the main road and use the forest instead. Of course, the plan doesn't quite work. Once he leaves the spa, the spa director calls some folks in the now-courageous resistance movement that he would be going through the forest and shortly afterwards, his car explodes spectacularly.

As I have already said, the Czechs suddenly get self-confident in Spring 1945 and behave as beasts while they're beating the Germans. Habermann who did the best things to protect the Czechs is killed. There's also a scene in which a Czech bumpkin, while stealing things in the Habermann villa, learns from his mother that his biological father was actually Habermann Sr. So he decides to declare himself the new owner of the mill in front of his other Czech "friends": he is Czech enough so that he may stay when the Germans are expelled but Habermann enough to inherit the mill. Of course, he gets a little bit of thrashing, a kind of deserved one.

The war, and even the 1930s, have seen a huge amount of nasty acts that were powered by the ethnic tensions. Of course, the German evil was much more concentrated, organized, and sophisticated which doesn't mean that the Czechs were saints. In average, there were good and bad people in both ethnic groups. The higher evil coming from the German side may be fully attributed to the "ambitious plans" that Germany just wanted to realize at those times.

I could enumerate some folks who deserve to be called "ethical Czech heroes" – like some of the Czechoslovak pilots in RAF etc. – but a very small number of them could be found on the actual Czech territory. How the normal people on the Protectorate or Sudetenland territory behaved was often pathetic and many Czechs who live today would be ashamed for many things that our ancestors did in those times, whether or not it was less stunning than the things that were done by Germany under the Nazi leadership.

There is one more aspect of the "fake Czech heroes" who suddenly do nasty things to the Germans at the end of the war and after the war. Their acts weren't driven purely by national feelings; they were also (or mainly) about a social welfare. The Soviet-inspired systems in which peasants are at the top and the rich folks are trashed, a system built in jealousy and downright denial of the market economy, was already coming to Czechoslovakia. That's the main reason why Habermann himself was treated so badly: he was a rich guy, after all.

Many Germans deserved some punishment, often a more severe punishment than what they have received. But the inability of Czechs in the situation similar to the Habermann case to figure out that they're harassing (or killing, although the mechanism of the murder here was fiction) an innocent or even very positive character is just frustrating.

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