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Asking for It

A Woman in Berlin, dir. Max Färberböck, now playing

The Great Happiness Space: Tales of an Osaka Love Thief, dir. Jake Clennell, on DVD

It’s a capitalist truism that we all have our price. In times of catastrophe that’s not just a figure of speech.

Love for sale: Issei (center) and his co-workers know what girls like. (c) Jake Clennell.
Love for sale: Issei (center) and his co-workers know what girls like. (c) Jake Clennell.

The opening minutes of A Woman in Berlin show the capital of the Nazi Reich shelled into rubble, its surviving residents scuttling among the ruins like cockroaches. The Soviet Army is rolling into Berlin, ready to deliver some serious payback. The Nazi leaders have fled or committed suicide; the troops have retreated. Only clutches of ragged women, unarmed and starving, remain to face the Soviet soldiers. Once the master race, the women have become the spoils of war.

Based on a diary kept by a German journalist during the first months after the fall of the Reich, Max Färberböck’s challenging film makes clear why the diary has a long history of controversy.

When the journalist’s lover, a German officer on the Eastern Front, read it on his return to Berlin, he wanted nothing more to do with her. The German public’s reaction was much the same in 1959, when the diary was published in Switzerland, with the author listed only as Anonyma. Her candid depiction of respectable women enduring multiple rapes and exchanging their bodies for food and security was denounced as an insult to German womanhood in West Germany and, in the East, as a filthy libel of the German Democratic Republic’s heroic Soviet comrades.

The book quickly went out of circulation and the author insisted it not be republished until after her death. So it was only in 2003 that Anonyma: Eine Frau in Berlin reappeared, and by then Germany and the rest of the world was ready to listen to Anonyma’s story. Hopefully Färberböck’s movie will bring it to an even wider audience.

Nina Hoss plays the unnamed journalist with a privileged woman’s hauteur and a brittle intelligence capable of knowing when privilege stops working. She’s well-connected, fluent in French and Russian, and a true believer in Hitler and the righteousness of German might. But once Berlin falls she’s just another victim in a city that has become, as one character says, “one big whorehouse.” She quickly realizes that survival depends on keeping a lid on anguish and making the best of whatever happens. (Hoss’s portrayal would have been even more powerful if the makeup department hadn’t insisted on keeping her disconcertingly lipsticked and mascara’d at all times.)

The Soviet Army’s sexual savagery was legendarily undiscriminating. Rape made up for their lack of pay, and in any case it was regarded, then as now, as a legitimate weapon of war, or at least unavoidable collateral damage. As one Soviet officer says when the journalist protests the army’s encouragement of sexual assault, “It’s just a few minutes—why are you complaining?” After what he and his comrades have been through, and given that German men are being shot or sent to die in Siberia, he figures the women are getting off easy.

Färberböck manages to show the women’s degradation matter-of-factly, eschewing titillation and acknowledging the humanity of both the women and the exhausted, brutalized soldiers. Moreover, small moments here and there remind us, and the journalist, that the nightmare Germany is enduring is just backwash from the horrors it has inflicted on millions across Europe. Perhaps those who warrant the most pity aren’t the innocent, but the people who must suffer the punishment fate deals out and, along with it, the lacerating knowledge that they deserve it.

Figuring that she is better off choosing her violator, the journalist decides to offer herself to a member of the Soviet officer corps. Her first choice proves unreliable, so she connects with a commander, Andrei (Yevgeni Sidikhin), who offers protection, pork sausage, and brandy. The accommodation between these two is neither rape nor love, but something that smacks disturbingly of both.

What’s most impressive about A Woman in Berlin is its wonderful dispassion, its insistence on showing us, close in, the extremes of pain and damage we humans inflict on each other, without the comfort of revenge fantasies, sermons, or happy endings.

The Great Happiness Space: Tales of an Osaka Love Thief is another terrific film that also explores the fine line separating whoredom and the quotidian quid-pro-quo of less overtly commercial human relationships. It never gained domestic commercial release but can—and should—be rented or downloaded from Netflix.

Granted, Jake Clennell’s 2006 documentary tackles a subject far less horrific than the rape of Europe, namely, the peculiarly Japanese phenomenon of the “host bar,” a sort of reverse-geisha playpen where women spend money to flirt and drink with attractive young men. But like A Woman in Berlin, it displays great confidence in the audience’s ability to understand shades of gray as it explores the profound costs of selling ourselves, no matter what our motives.

The thief of the title is Issei, owner and most popular host at Stylish Café Rakkyo, which advertises itself, in fractured Japenglish, as “the great happiness space.” He boasts that although sex isn’t part of the service a host is expected to provide, he’s had sex with hundreds of girls. And when we meet his customers, they’re not sagging matrons but pretty young women who, as soon as they’re alone with the camera, eagerly confess their love for Issei and their hopes of someday marrying him.

The bar’s two dozen hosts, all in their early twenties, make $10,000 to $50,000 a month by luring women in off the streets, convincing them to buy drinks, and getting them to keep coming back for more. Style is a selling point: all the young men favor bleached exploding-dandelion hairdos, makeup, lots of necklaces, rings, and bracelets, and a look that seems comically gay by American standards but apparently is catnip to Japanese womanhood.

“It’s a business of selling dreams,” Issei explains. A customer agrees, enthusing, “Everyone treats me like a princess.”

But as the documentary unfurls, the story grows bleaker. Issei insists he is honest with his customers and never pressures them to spend more than they can afford. Then we see him shamelessly leading one woman on (all his serious girlfriends started out as long-term customers, he assures her) and urging another, who’s both lovesick and very drunk, to buy him a third, then a fourth, then a fifth bottle of champagne, at a cost of something like $1,000 a bottle.

Selling themselves takes its toll on the young men. We see one of the bar’s new recruits wrestling with his own conscience; even Issei himself eventually reveals the hollowness of his earlier boasts.

Shot mostly inside the bar or in the dreary hallways that lead to it, Great Happiness Space is a dark, often ugly film, but that suits the story it tells. Nothing is spelled out; the drama here builds like a novel from an accretion of small moments and ends up illuminating not only the world of host bars but the universal ache of heartbreak, particularly the kind we bring on ourselves.

And who are these women dropping hundreds or thousands of dollars on a single evening with a bar host? It’s gradually revealed that most are bar hostesses or prostitutes themselves. The final minutes of Great Happiness Space are breathtakingly sad, even though, when it comes to humans’ boundless capacity for romantic self-delusion, you’d think there would be no surprises left.


Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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