Movie Review: Sudetenland Czechs endure occupation, plot revenge in “Habermann”

The problem with mob justice is that reason and rule of law and due process are tossed aside in the heat of the moment.

Mobs are the trapped in the gullibility of groupthink, easily led and just as easily misled.

And when people have suffered under a growing list of grievances, who they lash out against can be innocent, or at least a lot less “guilty” than the collective believes.

“Habermann” is a fictionalized account of mob justice visited upon the “guilty” in the first corner of Europe crushed under Hitler’s boot.

August Habermann was a German mill-owner in the Sudetenland, that corner of Czechoslovakia with so many Germans in that it became the dictator’s first grab in his quest for putting all “German” people under one government, with “Lebensraum” for all…Germans.

The fate of Sudetenland got lost in the carnage and horrors visited upon the continent by the Germans and Russians during the war. But the Czechs never forgot.

“Habermann” begins with a mob riot at war’s end, savage attacks on Germans in the village of Eglau as they’re rounded up for deportation. The movie ponders the notion that maybe all deportees aren’t created equal.

The long flashback that tells the story takes us to the marriage of August (Mark Waschke) to Jana (Hanna Herzsprung) in 1937. It’s a joyous occasion, with only best man Karel (Karel Roden) picking up on the hint of trouble. The ultra-political mayor (Andrej Hryc) has seen Jana’s birth certificate. Sure, she was raised in a convent and baptized there. But her father was Jewish.

“Nuremberg Laws” might be an issue, with the Austrian corporal filling the airwaves with anti-Czech vitriol and threats. Mixed marriages between Germans and Czechs might be common…now. But a German marrying a Jew?

As a happy marriage begins, other signs of trouble are on the horizon. August’s lumber and grist mill, the big local employer, is sure to get attention when the Western allies cave and let Germany swallow the Sudetenland. And August’s younger brother, Hans (Wilson Gonzalez) is blond, plump-faced and pouty. He’s a stereotypical movie Nazi in the making. Give him time.

The occupation, with Germans taking over the local spa as a hospital/retreat for Werhmacht casualties, will force Habermann to deal with the newly-arrived SS Sturmbannführer (Ben Becker). Like all ardent Nazis, he is most concerned with “blood” and bloodlines.

“Auf Deutsch!” he and his subordinates bark whenever some lowly Czech dares to speak her or his mother tongue. All these Czech factory workers, can he trust them? That turbine, Czech made?

“What nationality is electricity?” Habermann jokes. He isn’t really joking, but he can’t imagine early on the trials these Nazis will put him under to prove he’s a loyal German and that the Fatherland comes first, in all considerations.

Co-adapter and director Juraj Herz skips through history with this story, passing over the beginning of the war, popping us in 1940, ’43, ’44 and ’45. In a region that wasn’t bombed and only touched directly by the war in its closing days, that’s understandable.

The Holocaust is introduced directly in a single heart-rending scene, the cries of children overheard in crammed railway cars that pass by.

Waschke’s August tries to placate the Nazis and protect his workers, but his desperation to remain apolitical isn’t going to please anyone. His Czech neighbors are stealing from his lumber mill, building caches of arms and conspiring to interrupt “cooperation” with the Germans. The SS chief is ensuring the locals regard him as “German,” not “Czech.”

Roden’s “Karel” character, August’s best man and best friend, is thinly sketched-in, a somewhat passive if “patriotic” Czech who is aware of what his countrymen are doing, and of the way the Habermann’s are being characterized — perhaps unjustly, and in some cases, with nefarious motives.

Herzsprung’s Jana is the righteous, courageous one in this scenerio, a woman whose instinct is to save lives, even August’s cult-worshipping Wehrmacht volunteer brother.

It’s all rather murky, with the skipping through time, the cartoonish Nazis and the ma many characters who see “the future” and start to plan for who and what they’ll smash or flee from when “The Russians” get there.

“Habermann” is laudable for being that rare film to grapple with the nuances of collaboration. Other films have touched upon it, the women of France getting their heads shaved for fraternizing and falling in love with the occupiers and the like. Here’s a film that points its camera at baser motives, the way some oily opportunists see gain in every shift in political fortunes, every triumph or setback on the battlefield.

Being “neutral” and above it all isn’t an option, hoping people will know and sympathize with the coercion you were under is naive.

But Herz mutes the effect of his bigger messages and themes with all he leaves out. The horrific dilemmas Habermann faces, the accidents and rash behavior of others that he cannot cover for in the eyes of the black-uniformed Germans with machine guns all seems engineered to paper over his moral ambiguity in all this.

Thus does a movie about a fence-sitter become a frustrating exercise in fence-sitting itself.

 

in German and Czech with English subtitles.

MPA Rating: PG-13, violence, sex, nudity

Cast: Mark Waschke, Karel Roden, Ben Becker, Hannah Herzsprung, Wilson Gonzalez, Radek Holub, Andrej Hryc and Zuzana Krónerová

Credits: Directed by Juraj Herz, script by Wolfgang Limmer, Juraj Herz and Jan Drbohlav, based on the book by Josef Urban. A Corinth Films release on Film Movement Plus.

Running time: 1:44

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