Fact-based ‘Habermann’ is complex tale of ethnic hatred

Karel Roden (left) is among the actors who bring nuanced performances to ‘Habermann,’ which tells the fact-based story of the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after the end of World War II.

By Cate Marquis, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

“Habermann” is a thought-provoking movie about the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after the end of World War II in 1945. This complex film is a disturbing drama focused on the toxic nature of ethnic hatred. 

Czech director Juraj Herz weaves a compelling tale about August Habermann (Mark Waschke), a real mill owner in the Sudeten area of Czechoslovakia, where German and Czech families have lived peacefully together for hundreds of years.

The wealthy Habermanns are ethnically German, but they have owned a mill in the area for generations. August is both well-respected and well-liked, a man with no interest in ideology or politics. His best friend, Jan Brezina (Karel Roden), is a Czech woodsman, who is married to a German woman Martha Brezina (Franziska Weisz). Most of Habermann’s employees at the mill are Czech. Habermann himself is engaged to a beautiful young Czech woman, Jana (Hannah Herzsprung).

ADVERTISEMENT
The J - advertisement

Things suddenly change for everyone when Nazi Germany annexes the region in 1938. The Nazis show up on the Habermanns’ wedding day to take over. The Nazi racial laws require the couple to provide birth certificates showing religious and ethnic background, which leads August’s best man Jan to discover Jana’s father was Jewish.

The town’s Nazi occupation is led by Major Koslowski (Ben Becker), whose nasty treatment of non-Germans quickly leads to resentment among the Czech population as well as resistance. Habermann is disgusted by the Nazis policies, although his teenaged brother Hans embraces them. Habermann is a good, decent man who tries to help his Czech neighbors and employees, and especially protect his half-Jewish wife and their small daughter. But he is an ethnic German and when the war ends, a rage against all Germans is unleashed.

There was a real Habermann caught up in the insanity of war, and that basis in reality makes this tale all the more disturbing and gripping. The film is beautifully shot, with polished production values, lush period costumes and lovely location shots near Prague. But the visual beauty is deceptive, as this is no simple, uplifting morality tale. Rather, it challenges assumptions and explores moral dilemmas.

Nuanced acting helps convey the layers of complexity. Waschke’s August Habermann is a man who pays a high price during and after the war. The Nazis are outraged by his support of the Czechs and target his wife. After the war, he faces a backlash from the Czech population who do not know the truth.

Beautiful Hannah Herzsprung is moving as brave Jana Habermann and Karel Roden is forceful and compelling as their staunch friend Brezina, who understands the true nature of the situation and strives to help.

“Habermann” is not an easy film but it is a worthy one.

‘Habermann’

When: 2 p.m., Tuesday, June 14

Where: Landmark Plaza Frontenac

Running time: 1:44

More info: Introduction by Jean Cavender, director of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. In Czech and German with English subtitles