Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Der Mädchenkrieg (3½ Stars)

This is a film of epic proportions based on a best-selling novel by the East German author Manfred Bieler. The title translates literally as "The girls' war", but the novel has been published in English as "The Three Daughters". I haven't read the book, but director Bernhand Sinkel (shown above) says that he had to leave out over half of the story to prevent the film becoming too long. Even so, the film is almost three hours long. The following review contains more spoilers than I usually include, but since I doubt my English-speaking readers will ever be able to see the film I think you will forgive me.

The film begins in 1936. Dr. Sellman moves from Dessau (Germany) to Prague (Czechoslovakia) to become the manager of a Czechoslovakian bank. In the film he's a widower, and he takes with him his three adult daughters, Christine, Sophie and Katharina. The three girls soon have three suitors, who each approach the father to ask for permission to marry the girls on the same evening. Jan, who wants to marry Christine, is the owner of a large porcelain company. Pavel, who wants to marry Sophie, is a successful music student. Karol, who wants to marry Katharina, is a less successful music student. Jan marries Christine; Sophie turns Pavel down because she doesn't love him; Katharina is forbidden to marry Karol because he is a Communist, but she continues to meet him in secret.

After marrying Christine Jan begins an affair with Sophie. Pavel finds out about the affair and blackmails Jan for enough money to finance his studies. In 1938 western Czechoslovakia became part of Germany. This was a peaceful "invasion", welcomed by the ethnic German majority. The Czech army laid down their weapons and requested to join the German army. Eastern Czechoslovakia remained independent at first, but later in 1938 it was invaded by Poland. Germany repelled the Polish forces on the request of the Czechoslovakian government.

Christine is given control of the porcelain company, because ethnic Czechslovakians are not allowed to own large companies. Sophie reveals her relationship with Jan to Christine in the hope that she will leave him, but Jan and Sophie are involved in a near fatal car accident. Sophie sees this as the voice of God and becomes a nun. Christine nurses Jan back to health, and they remain married even though they now hate one another. Christine becomes a Nazi, and her house becomes an important social highlight for high ranking German officers. Katarina is active in the Czechoslovakian resistance, and she flirts with the officers in her sister's house to win information.

The convent becomes a hospital, and during the war Sophie devotes herself to caring for the wounded. In 1945 she has to flee, because the Russian army is executing Germans as it advances, even nuns. She returns to Prague where she meets Pavel again. At first they become lovers, but she can't resist Jan. Pavel kills Jan in a jealous rage. Katharina wants to marry Karol, but he rejects her because it is "unacceptable" to marry a German. The girls' father is killed during a battle between Russian and German troops. Czechoslovakia is given back its independence, nominally, but it soon becomes clear that they are only independent as long as they do what Russia says. Ethnic cleansing is carried out in the region; of the 3.5 million ethnic Germans who lived in the area before 1938 only 40,000 remain today. In 1946 the three girls return to Germany in time to save their lives. They arrived in Prague rich and single, they leave poor and single.

This is a remarkable piece of fiction that reminds me of classic Russian authors such as Tolstoy. It speaks of love and betrayal against the background of international conflicts. The reason for my relatively low rating is that the film is too compact. What I mean is that even though the story has been shortened, three hours is too little to adequately portray a tale of this magnitude. It could have been done more justice as a 13-week television series.

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