When people are unwilling to rebel against a flawed social system either because they are afraid of political repression or because they are afraid to lose their material comfort – they are prone to rebel inside the area of private relationships (to challenge the society’s norms and values only in private life). “Berlin affair” shows such a domesticated, “privatized” rebellion (that takes place in Nazi Germany in 1938) by husband and wife who look and sound like any successful American couple today – with a curious albeit horrifying results we all can learn from.

Totalitarian systems of human relations have the ability to create tremendous enthusiasm which outweighs the deprivations and sacrifices they put on the masses of population. The basic reason for this enthusiasm is the ideology of megalomania people enjoy (it is so pleasant to feel that you are better than people of other countries, especially if you are on the bottom of the social hierarchy), and the right to hate, kill and rob those “who are not like we are”. Totalitarian system is strong by this people’s euphoria, and non-totalitarian ideologies cannot match the power of this ideological permission allowing criminal behavior because it justifies it by patriotic reasons. Only alternative ways of life can sometimes distract people from totalitarian “pleasures” because they detour collective ideology and directly address what in the human soul exist not recognized, completely unconscious and unknown to the human being. This doesn’t happen too often that a person can “betray” totalitarian ideology by choosing alternative way of being, but when it happens it opens a new perspective on the human soul.

Cavani’s film addresses exactly this situation when wife of a Nazi functionary (man enjoying a promising career), and later he himself, without understanding why, became ready to forget their loyalty to the Nazi ideology and feeling of belonging to the elite of their country – for the sake of a scandalous affair with a woman of a different race and culture.

May be, they unconsciously use this “mad” love affair to cut once and forever their ties with their way of life – anomic, crazy, extremist, but, may be, some other powers in the human soul were awakened by their new experience which Louise and Heinz von Hollendorff discovered as a salvation from the “totalitarian criminality” of their everyday life when “benign” elimination of the not proper categories of people was normal and necessary.

Obsession with the daughter of the Japanese Ambassador opened for Louise and Heinz’s souls some mysterious doors, and this transformed their megalomania, indifference and hate towards life and dissimilar people (which is immanent in totalitarian ideologies) into their humility, even though it was impregnated with masochistic accents as the opposite to the fascist – sadistic posture, inseparable from Nazism.

“Berlin Affair” (1985) by Liliana Cavani

Cavani directs Mio Takaki (Mitzuko Matsugae) and Gudrun Landgrebe (Louise von Hollendorf)
Liliana Cavani works with Mio Takaki (Mitzuko Matsugae) and Gudrun Landgrebe (Louise von Hollendorf) on the set of “The Berlin Affair”

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Liliana Cavani encourages Mio Takaki to be (as Mitzuko) more seductively enigmatic

Nazi operation “Cleaning High Ranks” according to the Fuhrer’s order is in action

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The idea of Nazi leadership was to get rid of the Wehrmacht generals suspected in having homosexual proclivities (if checking the truth will prove that suspicion is justified). Wolf, Heinz’s cousin and chief of Berlin police and a high ranking Gestapo officer, asks Louise and Heinz to entrap general von Heiden by inviting him to private party at their home for dinner where it will be surprise for him – his alleged young lover. In this shot we see Heinz, a Nazi official with promising career (far left, standing), his wife Louise von Hollendorff (standing in front of him near the piano), Wolf (sitting, on the left in the background), general von Heiden (sitting in the center in the background), and his supposedly secret lover (playing piano).

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General von Heiden immediately understood, of course, that he is trapped as soon as he stepped into the living room and saw the young piano player, but he had to helplessly wait for the end of the masquerade.

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It was quite an unbearable experience for von Heiden, highly respected among the top generals of the armed forces, to look at his young protégé who didn’t suspect anything.

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The finale scene ends with opening a bottle of Champaign – the artist was introduced to the general, and when they shook hands superficially pretending to enjoy meeting each other, Wolf congratulated the general for having helped his young protégé make an impressive career, fame and in his artistic achievements. The young man still tried to mumble “proofs” of not knowing the general until that moment, but von Heiden explained to him that it is meaningless and resumed whole scene by a maxim that “you cannot defend yourself against vulgarity” and by the final remark that he insists on the court of honor.

Mitzuko and Louise amidst war and international economic robbery

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At the height of Nazism Louise found in closeness to Mitzuko the magic point of tranquility and beauty.

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Louise, the wife of a Nazi official, and Mitzuko, the daughter of Japanese ambassador to Germany, found themselves very far from the mass cannibalistic orgy of war swallowing human lives and robbing properties of other people and countries.

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Alerted by the rumors about his wife and his own impressions of her, Heinz expresses to Louise his bewilderment at what she sees in Mitzuko…

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…only to maniacally join them while leaving his blossoming career without looking back

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Mitzuko consoled them both, regulating rendezvous by orderly giving the husband and wife carefully dosed sleeping pills.

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Relationship with Mitzuko wasn’t a complete alternative to the chaotic and predatory times. She personified not only disinterestedness and beauty, but for Louise and Heinz she also personified the authoritarian side of Nazism. May be, she felt that it is necessary in order to make them follow her to be able to save them from the madness of Nazi ideology of war and domination. She died from overdose of sleeping pills together with Heinz and let Louise live and understand life better. Cavani’s film is based on Louise’s story.

Posted May 14, 2010 –   Liliana Cavani’s “Berlin Affair” (1985): How to Beat the Unbearable Social Anomy? – To internalize it, Shift it into the Area of Private Relations and to intensify it there by Acting-Out Politics