Czech director Juraj Herz’s “Habermann” is set in German-Czech inhabited Sudetenland and begins with a scene of cruelty and destruction. An angry mob loots houses while forcing the inhabitants into the streets and towards railroad cars. People are beaten and humiliated. One woman’s face is even smashed into the urine-soaked portrait of her country’s leading politician, someone she never voted for and cared for even less.The ground she kneels on will be Czechoslovakia once again and she was married to a German. So coming in contact with a smelly Hitler-portrait is the least of her worries. We then flash back eight years. The woman’s husband, August Habermann, is a well-liked industrialist of German heritage who was born in the Sudetenland, where Germans and Czechs have co-existed in relative peace for hundreds of years. Even when the country is annexed by Nazi Germany via the Munich Pact, he expresses doubt that things are really going to change. He concentrates his work, his Czech wife Jana and their newborn child.
When the Nazis finally arrive, some of his Czech workers take up arms and pamphlets. He tries to protect them the best he can, but is unable to stop the extortion, torture and killings perpetrated by the Nazis. He cannot imagine that what friends and co-workers have in store for him might be even worse.
For director Herz the war is of lesser importance than what it turns people into. While some of the characters become heroes or at least show some morality, others use the vagaries of war as an excuse for a free-for-all and there are turncoats, informers and cowards on the Czech side. Habermann’s fate is not determined by what he did during the war, but by anguished victims eager to blame anybody and envious, greedy workers who are suddenly in power.
The birth of Habermann’s daughter, the Munich Pact, the girl’s christening and the arrival of the first Nazis seem to have all happened in one afternoon and this is confusion since it is not possible.. Other scenes are also confusing and that is because there is so much going on.
Mark Waschke as Habermann turns in a beautiful performance as do Hannah Herzsprung and Karel Roden as his wife and best friend. This is a serious film about a subject that long deserved its due. Its flaws are neither fatal nor do they completely take away its impact. They just limit what could have been an important film to being a decent film about something important.
“Habermann” opens with families are torn apart, women are tossed around and mud splattered everywhere and goes on to chronicle the post-war Czech backlash against German occupiers. The story is told from the viewpoint of the oppressors, Sudeten Germans, who until the 1938 annexation of the Czech province lived as immigrants outside their country, in some cases for hundreds of years. Chief among these is August Habermann, a principled mill owner whose strong morality is opposite to the violence that we see.
This is a portrait of a town that is devoid of normality or everyday activity, and this depiction undercuts the eventual emotional escalation. It is a morality-play with stock figures of Hitler Youth, a traitor, a double-dealer, and others. It is less concerned with ideas of redemption or salvation. The majority of the characters are concerned solely with themselves—-they are desperate opportunists for whom other people are barriers or distractions. The moral Habermann comes off as almost saint-like but his ethical purity achieves nothing. The film doesn’t try to understand or define the tragedy of the story it tells and allows its small tragedies to stand on their own.
The tension between the Czechs and Germans was already manifest in the 1930s with Czechs usually working in inferior jobs. August Habermann is the one positive character. 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 but it also a devout Catholic and relatively loyal to the German cause. She wasn’t really aware of having a Jewish father; however, the birth certificate is aware of that as are 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. We see that the Nazi propaganda machine was trying to hide totally elementary facts such as the fact that the Germany army was punished by Stalin. Informing citizens about these events was potentially fatal.
The film doesn’t really portray Czechs as some innocent heroes facing purely bad and vicious German foes. The main hero is a German, after all, and much of the Czech resistance movement that Habermann indirectly helps to support is very primitive. His wife and their daughter are expelled not because she is Czech and Jewish but due to her loyalty during the war. For Germans, the Sudentland was a beloved homeland. When the Nazi army arrives, Habermann 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 film tries hard to be an epic but does not succeed. It does, however, succeed as an interesting view of history.