Dresden, an epic film made in 2006 for German television, touches on many themes: human frailty, human brutality, kindness, cruelty and indifference. The plot hinges on a love triangle between Anna, a German nurse, her fiancé Alexander and Robert, the British bomber pilot she rescues. Subplots involve her colleague, a Gentile woman trying to protect her Jewish husband from the Nazis, and the treacherous diversion of medicine from the hospital Anna’s father directs.
Dresden unfolds in the days leading up to the infamous Allied firebombing of the German city on February 13-14, 1945. Nicknamed “Florence on the Elbe” for its legendary beauty, the city was reduced to ashes in one night, leaving tens of thousands of civilians dead. Its destruction remains a profound trauma in the German memory of World War II.
My soon-to-be published World War II novel, In the Arms of the Enemy, involves a love triangle, too, and my heroine must choose between two lovers—one her compatriot and the other her enemy. The characters in Dresden face conflicts very similar to those in my novel. When Anna discovers Robert’s identity, she is torn between love and hate. Robert represents to her the most despicable of the enemy, the men who bomb not only legitimate military targets, but women and children as well.
The movie combines familiar elements: a poignant love story, conflicted characters, tortuous plot twists, all set against the cataclysmic destruction of a city. On one level, Dresden plays like the clichéd disaster film. The plotline and the interactions of the protagonists are largely predictable. The principles rush through burning streets and collapsing buildings in search of their loved ones. Most find each other in the end, though not all survive. At times, the storyline stretches believability and pulls a bit too vigorously on our heartstrings. But on the whole, it is effective. The acting and direction are fine and the technical aspects of the production—special effects, costumes, sets, cinematography—are high quality. Careful research is evident in the historical recreation of the events surrounding the bombing. The scenes involving the firestorm are riveting, though they offer only a glimpse of the horror of the actual event.
The film examines the moral paradox of war, of fighting for love of country, and believing, as the principled combatants on both sides do, that it is both honorable and obligatory to kill other human beings who have done nothing to deserve their individual fates. Not only perpetrators of war crimes, but innocents, too, merit punishment. It is frequently expressed by their former foes (we Americans, for instance) that any losses the German people suffered were richly deserved. When Anna learns that the Englishman she has been sheltering is a bomber pilot, she is horrified. In anger and disgust she asks, “What does it feel like to bomb women and children?” to which he responds, somewhat predictably, “Ask the Luftwaffe.” In other words, you bomb my country—I have every right to bomb the hell out of yours.
In the “Making of Dresden” featurette included in the DVD, the filmmakers stress that this is an anti-war film. In recognition of the monumental atrocities committed by Germans during World War II, the current Federal Republic has become a nation of avowed pacifists. This subject is timely as the heated debate about Germany’s participation in the present NATO operation in Afghanistan persists. In fact, Germany does not even call this undertaking a “war”; rather, they consider it a humanitarian mission. The thought of their soldiers intentionally killing other combatants is repugnant to most Germans. Their national conscience has not yet, and perhaps never will, recover from the guilt today’s Germans have inherited from the Nazis.
Beyond the anti-war message, and in addition to the moving love story and dramatic twists and turns, Dresden examines the fate of the city itself. Dresden becomes a protagonist in its own right, and its destruction is almost as painful and poignant as the deaths of the human beings who inhabit it. At the end of the film, actual footage of the recent reconstruction of the city is shown, including the rededication of the famed Frauenkirche, the centerpiece of the city. The British city of Coventry donated a cross to the resurrected church as a symbol of reconciliation. This cross was one of several fashioned from nails recovered among the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by a Luftwaffe blitz in 1940. I was fortunate to see one such cross in Berlin’s Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche during my recent trip to Germany. The ruins of that church are preserved, as a memorial to the devastation of the war. I saw only the outside of the Frauenkirche while in Dresden, but was awed by its rebirth, after having viewed photographs of the shattered remnants that followed the February 1945 bombing.
Dresden painstakingly treads the line between portraying the firebombing as a justified, military objective and depicting it as a gratuitous act of vengeance. The question remains open. Germans today are conflicted over how to view this catastrophe, as well as other tragedies suffered during the war. In the decades since 1945, Germany still struggles with these issues. Do Germans have the right, in light of the crimes committed by the Nazis, the murders of millions of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, political dissidents and countless other victims, to acknowledge and mourn their own losses? Twenty-first century Germans are ambivalent.
Dresden is an important and well-made film, which examines these themes in a compelling manner. I recommend it, as I believe Dresden’s story deserves to be told.
Note: The DVD, in German and English with English subtitles, is available here at Amazon.com.