Monday, 22 December 2014

Three Days in April (4 Stars)

This film is based on true events that occurred in Eckartshausen, a small village near Schwäbisch Hall in the south of Germany, from April 2nd to April 6th 1945. In the film the village is called Nesselbühl, and the supporting characters are fictitious, but the major events are accurately portrayed.

It's April 1945 in a sleepy little village in Swabia. The American army is close by, and the villagers are already making preparations for the arrival of the troops. When the radio broadcasts propaganda about Germany's Endsieg (final victory) they just laugh. 20-year-old Anna works in her father's tavern, pouring wine and schnapps for the guests, most of whom are German soldiers. Some of them have been discharged with injuries, some are on leave, some are deserters. When the SS come to inspect the tavern the deserters hide. The SS officers are northerners, unwelcome in Swabia for their accents alone.

During the night of April 2nd a damaged transport train arrives in the station. It can only continue on its way if the back three wagons are unhooked. The SS say the wagons will be picked up by another locomotive the next day, and they leave three soldiers to guard the wagons. But the locomotive doesn't come, because the American army has taken control of the surrounding stations. The villagers are disturbed by the sounds of screaming coming from the wagons, day and night. The children stand amazed, staring at the faces at the windows. The locals, who know nothing about concentration camps, don't even know that the prisoners are Jews and assume that they must be criminals. Nevertheless, they're shocked by the conditions, almost 100 people in each wagon with not even enough room to lie down. Out of sympathy Anna calls on the local women to bring bread and wine to feed the prisoners, but the wagon doors are only opened for ten minutes, and they don't have time for the third wagon.

Then, on the third day, the soldiers guarding the wagons desert. It's the village's problem now. What should they do? Is it safe to free the survivors, because, after all, they might be dangerous criminals? The wagons can't stay where they are, because the stink is terrible, the odour of urine, faeces and dead bodies. The shocking decision that they make exemplifies the moral quagmire of Germany during the Nazi years.

In the West the Germans were mocked when they said that they didn't know what had happened to the Jews. That's short-sighted. Very few Germans knew about the concentration camps. It was a strict secret known only to those who were involved. The camps were officially called Arbeitslager (work camps), and over the camp doors there was the slogan "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work makes you free"). The German people, on the whole, didn't know the Jews were being slaughtered. They knew they were disappearing, but they assumed that they were either emigrating or being sent to the semi-benign work camps. In the film Anna is shocked by the mistreatment of the prisoners and says, "It's inhuman how the soldiers are treating them. We should let the Führer know, so that he can stop them".

Saying this doesn't excuse the average German, though. We see this in the film, when the villagers have to deal with the Jews themselves.

The film was made for television in 1995 and broadcast on the 50th anniversary of the events, but it received such critical acclaim that it was released in the cinemas a few months later. There have been so many films made over the years about the mistreatment of Jews in Germany, but this film has something new to say. I'm surprised that it has only recently been released on DVD, 20 years after it was made. For now it's only available in German, but I sincerely hope that it will be released with English subtitles.

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