Shame doesn’t make good TV. Shock either. Yet those are the basic emotions in the new miniseries about postwar Germany that aired on the German public TV channel ZDF last night.
Almost seventy years after the war ended, I thought maybe – just maybe — German TV could produce a good story showing its history in a way that entertains and informs.
But they forgot the entertainment part.
It’s 1945 on the border between Thuringen and Bavaria. The Allies move into the fictional village of Tannbach and the estate of its local nobility. Since it’s a border village, it’s going to be cut in half along with Germany. Part of the town in the American Zone, part in the Russian. This really happened here and there. So much for the interesting part of the background.
This is just my opinion, but stories should be about people. Not about background, not about types. Individuals should struggle for whatever they want or need against whatever the historical backdrop happens to be. We the viewers get sucked into a story when we’re just as surprised and moved by events as the characters in the story.
For that, we have to be surprised and moved. And this is where “Tannbach” failed.
Back to all that shock and shame. It’s true — these emotions sat deep in the Germans at the end of the war. Many people walked around with stony faces staring into the distance in silence. But does that make good TV? No. Is it good drama? No.
Scriptwriters and producers of historical drama have to strike a balance between what was most likely to happen in a given period, and what the audience would find compelling. The two don’t always go together. If done badly, there’s an emotional gulf between the events on screen and the viewers.
An example is the dramatic early scene when the countess sacrifices herself to save the males of the village. It was the best scene in the film’s first part, but it still didn’t move me. I was too puzzled by the reaction — or lack of — of the characters. Something like 50 people in a courtyard know the Americans are right around the corner, yet they let themselves be cowed by 3 or 4 SS guys with guns. Okay, this happens.
But the SS officer is apparently a local boy. People know him. Not one person stands up and says, “Come on, Hans (or whatever his name was), don’t be an ass. It’s over.” I watched the scene as it played out and simply didn’t believe it. At that moment of collapse, not one character expressed a second of the frustration probably built up over the Nazi years. They had to guard their tongues for a long time no matter what they believed. In a moment of high tension, one character could have stepped out of line. Maybe gotten shot for it, but still. I waited for a character to say something human. It didn’t happen. People were too busy standing around looking shocked.
Besides, someone who stepped out of line would’ve been — shock (!) — an individual. And that’s what the film didn’t have. There were lots of types. The wily Nazi who slimes with the Americans. The old lady who strokes her Hitler portrait before she prays over the rosary. The Nazi count who deserted his Volkssturm unit and says all of 10 sentences over the whole film. The Hitler Youth kid who refuses to serve the Americans in a pub. The refugee woman who gives out two young men as her sons to save them.
Any of these people have the potential of making good characters, and fail to do it. Mostly because they’re aimless. The film jumps from one person to another without anything to glue the story together. For me, the setting isn’t enough. Nobody wants anything in particular. They don’t need anything but to endure. They don’t struggle. They lay down like puppies with their paws in the air. Did this really happen? Probably. Does it make good film? No.
So I wasn’t moved. Surprise would’ve been nice, but the film didn’t give me that either. Take the first scene of the Russians moving into the village. A unit searches a farmhouse and finds an old man, a woman and her cute little boy in short pants. What happens?
You guessed it. They’re all shot. Did this happen in real life? Probably, in many places. Does it make good film? Sometimes. But by the end of the film when this scene took place, I was desperate to find something I didn’t see coming a mile away. Anything. The Soviet officer could’ve had a lackey soil the family Hitler portrait, sit the adults at the table and force them at gunpoint to eat the portrait. The cute little boy in short pants watches in horror as his family chokes on their god. He wouldn’t understand it, but he’d never forget it. The viewers either. Nothing even remotely memorable happened except for maybe the countess’s execution in the film’s first 20 minutes.
It’s disappointing when history is served up so bland. It’s another reason for people to ignore it. And possibly forget.