Movie About Dresden Stirs Criticism in Germany

Germans have never been sure how to deal with the World War II bombing of the city of Dresden. Recently, the most expensive TV production ever undertaken in Germany tried to tell the story without upsetting anyone. But it reaped a torrent of criticism and managed to offend nearly everyone.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. In February 1945, British and American planes dropped almost 4,000 tons of bombs on the German city of Dresden. The attacks killed up to 35,000 people, mostly civilians, and reduced one of the country's most beautiful cities to rubble. Many Germans still regard the bombing as a war crime. Earlier this week the first feature film about the bombing aired on German TV. Some hailed it for breaking a taboo, but critics blasted it as a kitsch fest that makes a mockery out of real suffering. Kyle James reports from Berlin.

KYLE JAMES, reporting:

The movie Dresden: An Inferno doesn't hold back when it comes to showing a city and many of its residents being destroyed.

(Soundbite of explosions)

JAMES: The effects are lavish in this two-part movie, buildings explode, people are buried in avalanches of rubble, or turned into near charcoal on the streets. At 12 million dollars it's Germany's most expensive TV production ever. And likely the most hyped. But it's taken 60 years for a drama to be made about the event, which up until now has only been approached carefully in documentaries. Germans have a deeper sense of horror about the Dresden bombing than the do about other German cities.

Many say it was gratuitous to level what was once called the Florence on the River Elbe in the waning months of the war. Hajo Funke is a professor who teaches the history of the Nazi era at Berlin's Free University.

Professor HAJO FUNKE (History of Nazi Era, Free University of Berlin): It did not destroy the production structure and the railway structure, so it was aimed to destroy the will of the regime, or the people of Germany. So it was a very ambivalent thing to do.

Mr. SASCHA SCHWINGEL (Producer, Dresden): And it is still sensitive and still people think about how many people died, so it was not easy for us to find a way, yeah, in which way we want to tell the story.

JAMES: Sascha Schwingel is one of the film's producers. The way he and his team decided to approach the movie was to put a love story at its core.

(Soundbite of movie Dresden) (German Spoken)

JAMES: And that's what solicited some big groans from critics. They don't like the TV movie of the week treatment of a German national tragedy. The plot does stretch plausibility to breaking point. A British pilot is shot down over Germany. Then he's shot in the stomach by a mob. Despite this potentially fatal wound he manages to make his way to a Dresden hospital. There he and a German nurse promptly fall in love after a few smoldering glances. There's even a sex scene smack in the middle of a hospital ward that's come in for special scorn.

Mr. PETER VON BECKER (Critic, Berlin Newspaper): She is in bed with this guy and this among all the wounded people, the dying people, this is really, in a way, obscene.

JAMES: Peter von Becker is a critic from Berlin's Tagesspiegel Newspaper, who titled his review 'Schmaltz Bombs Fall over Dresden.' But he says even apart from the love scenes there was a series of unlikely plot twists and the scriptwriters were sloppy when it came to a topic that needed careful handling.

Mr. BECKER: I think among the psychological details and the political details, and the historical details, it was always wrong. Many of these things couldn't happen and it would have been easy to avoid these things.

JAMES: But producer Schwingel argues the plot isn't that farfetched and that the cross-cultural love story has its basis in fact.

Mr. SCHWINGEL: In Cologne there was living a German nurse and an English pilot until 1980 who fell in love during the Second World War. So I think a lot of things in our film could have happened like this.

JAMES: Despite all the critical raspberries, Schwingel and his production company will likely have the last laugh. Around 12 million Germans watched each of the two episodes, excellent ratings for German TV. The critics have thrown up their hands in resignation, saying that even with a topic as serious as the Dresden bombing, it appears kitsch still sells. For NPR News, I'm Kyle James in Berlin.

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