directed by Juraj Herz
(Corinth Films, 2010)

I would imagine most readers will be familiar with the World War II film Schindler's List, in which an individual tries to do the right thing during a time of horrible atrocities. The movie Habermann is a similar type film in that it also focuses on another individual in a position to help those caught on the wrong side of this war. August Habermann (played by Mark Waschke) was a mill owner in rural Czechoslovakia. While his family came from Germany, they had run this business for generations by the time WWII started. August was bilingual. He was the largest employer in his village. He hired both Germans and Czechs, never siding with one group over the other based on their nationality. In short, August was a successful businessman with little interest in politics.

Unfortunately, when Hitler penned an agreement with the Allies giving him control of a portion of this country in the late 1930s, life in Czechoslovakia was about to change. Major Koslowski (Ben Becker) is sent to control this area for the Nazis. Naturally, he takes an interest in the mill as a resource for the Nazi war machine. While he takes a shine to August's younger brother Hans (who enters the Hitler Youth and ultimately gets shipped off to the Eastern Front), he has a problem with a German citizen giving jobs to lowly Czechs, especially the job of foreman. To make matters worse, August married a Czech national. While August's wife, Jana, was raised at a Catholic orphanage, she has a secret even she didn't know about. She is half Jewish -- which in the eyes of the Nazis makes both her and Habermann's daughter Jews.

As one would suspect of subjugated peoples, they rebel however they can. Some of the Czech mill workers begin to fight back. They distribute leaflets with information/propaganda against the invaders. They pilfer supplies. They sabotage resources earmarked for the German army. When one of Habermann's workers, Masek, shoots two German soldiers, it is the beginning of the end for August and his family. Major Koslowski forces Habermann to select which Czechs from the village will pay for the deaths of the Germans. Habermann attempts to buy lives, but in the end, the Germans still pick their victims. Habermann is seen by the Czechs as being a collaborator with the Nazis -- a true German citizen, despite his life and family in Czechoslovakia.

We all know this war eventually ended. When the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia from the East, the Germans began their retreat. The Czechs take their revenge on the one big target remaining -- Habermann. This is a man who was persecuted by the Nazis for sticking up for his Czech neighbors and Jewish wife. And in the end, those Czech neighbors turn on him for being a German Nazi (which he wasn't). A few more secrets are revealed about the Habermann family as the mill compound is destroyed and the family torn apart. Jana and her daughter are exiled back to Germany, even though they were Czech by birth. While the Czechs had every right to be angry at the Nazis during this time of occupation, the crimes they committed, on innocent people no less, is just as unforgiveable as the crimes perpetrated on them.

Habermann was directed by Juraj Herz, a prolific director who has also worked as an actor and set designer. His purpose for working on this film was to bring back to life a piece of history many people would rather forget about.

If you're looking for a feel-good film with a happy ending, this is not the movie for you. If, however, you would like to experience some of the reality of World War II Europe, then I would recommend Habermann. This is a foreign film, so I imagine most folks in the USA will be watching with subtitles. I should also mention that there is really not a lot of action in this drama. This story is more told through dialogue. The battles between planes, tanks and other machines of war are minimal. Yes, you will see people die from gun shots, but you won't see the heart-stopping fight scenes like in Saving Private Ryan (or numerous other war films). Still, I quite enjoyed Habermann. You can see how war brings out the best in a few people, but mostly it brings out the worst.

review by
Wil Owen

5 October 2013

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