Judge Daryl Loomis learned his lesson about impersonating doctors when he had to administer a colonoscopy.
At least you have somebody who thinks about you.
In 1985, Rainer Simon's The Woman and the Stranger became the first and only East German film to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Unlike many of the films in the DEFA library catalog, however, Simon's film wasn't banned for political reasons or anything romantic like that. Instead, this film had its distribution suspended for over two decades because of a simple rights issue with Leonhard Frank's novel, Karl und Anna. It's such a shame this movie has remained unavailable for all these years; The Woman and the Stranger is a beautiful tale of loneliness, stolen identity, and the toll of war.
Facts of the Case
Karl and Richard (Joachim Lätsch, Sonja and Peter Zimmermann, Atkins) are German POWs captured by the Russians during World War I. Over the years they have worked together, they have become extremely close. To alleviate some of their deep loneliness, Richard entertains them with tales of his home life and his beautiful wife, Anna. Through these stories, Karl begins to fall in love with her in his mind. One day, they are separated; Richard is conscripted into a traveling work camp, but Karl is able to escape back to Germany. He travels to Richard's town and, posing as his old friend, finally meets Anna (Kathrin Waligura, Der Drache Daniel). She's even more amazing than he dreamed and, though she doesn't believe for a second that he is her husband (who she believes dead), she is so lonely that she accepts his advances. As they begin to fall in love, Anna is shocked to receive a letter from Richard, saying that he's on his way home.
The film opens on Karl and Richard digging trenches in the middle of nowhere. They're cutting into the Earth so that their Russian captors can murder Germans. The indignity of contributing to the death of their own people is a crushing burden and, through it, the two prisoners form a tight bond and Richard helps them cope with his stories. Though they're Richard's memories, Karl's sheer loneliness forces him to internalize them as his own. He misses Anna as if she were his wife. Just like Richard, it's all he has. He doesn't keep his feelings hidden, either, but Richard understands. For as close of friends as they are, though, they don't really know each other at all. They're together by circumstance only; neither has any idea what the other was like before they became prisoners, so it should come as no surprise to Richard that Karl doesn't act the way he thinks Karl should.
Karl internalizes those stories so deeply that, when he finally gets freed, there is no other option in his mind but to go and find Anna. Richard described her so often and in such detail that her picture is embedded in Karl's memory. He doesn't come to any distinct conclusion to head there; it's the only natural thing that he can do. When he knocks on Anna's door, he smiles and pretends he's Richard, never seeming to believe that Anna won't look at him and see that he isn't her husband; he just smiles and pretends. Anna doesn't believe him, especially apparent when she presents a letter declaring his death, but it doesn't deter him. Loneliness hits on both sides, though, and Anna decides to let him in the door.
Karl won't quit insisting he's her supposedly dead husband, and Anna is bemused by his persistence. She has felt such loss, though, that it just feels good to have somebody touch her and show kindness to her. Eventually, they do fall in love and are set to be married when another letter arrives that declares Richard alive and homeward bound. Though his charade has been exposed, Karl still loves Anna, and she him. But Richard's impending return means that those old wounds are torn open once again.
Simon begins his film in sepia tone, representing the dreary monotony of POW life. Outside of bondage, he switches to full color, accenting the beauty and comfort away from war. In this stylish way, Simon tells two stories. One is the story of Karl and Anna's budding love. The other is Richard's odyssey. Richard is only alive for the love of Anna, but Anna has ostensibly moved on, so the two stories run in direct conflict with each other. Whether Anna decides to stay with Karl or return to Richard, both outcomes are heartbreaking. One, love lost; the other, a journey in vain. Simon makes very effective use of stylistic touches such as the color palette to tell his sadly romantic story, and the performances bolster the story all the more. Kathrin Waligura put forward an amazingly nuanced performance as Anna, having to love the memory of Richard while distrusting Karl and slowly falling in love with him. She doesn't come into the picture for a while, but she quickly becomes the lynchpin that holds the story together. Joachim Lätsch has quite a bit to do himself as Karl. His most amazing feat is knowingly stealing his best friend's wife without ever coming across as a monster. Instead, he's as sympathetic as anyone in the film, as though his loneliness makes his transgression acceptable. Peter Zimmermann, as Richard, often seems the odd man out, but his slow journey back to Germany is what moves both the joy and the sorrow of the film. Zimmerman's performance carries the sadness and deep understanding necessary to make the story work. As a trio, they are brilliant. As a film, The Woman and the Stranger is brilliant, as well.
The DEFA Library of University of Massachusetts Amherst has done a nice job on their release of The Woman and the Stranger. It's a full frame transfer, but appears to be in the correct ratio. The image is fairly grainy, but it hasn't seen the best treatment in town, and can certainly be forgiven. Because the film carries all ranges of color, from sepia tones to muted color to full color, it is difficult to judge its accuracy. It seems right, though, and looks nice, so what can I complain about? The mono sound is acceptable, but it's nothing special. The dialog is clear and it is generally free of hiss, though there's some here and there. The only extra is an interview with Rainer Simon on the history of the film.
The Woman and the Stranger is a fantastic piece of work, one of the best love triangles I've ever seen. Rainer Simon has created a film of tragic beauty and heartbreaking loss that, at the same time, allows true love to flourish. Beautiful performances and a beautiful story, this may be the best film thus far released by the DEFA Library.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: DEFA Film Library
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