The film starts with a scene in 1919 Germany, i.e., just after the end of the First World War, when we see a beautiful young woman, dressed in black, putting flowers on the grave of her dead fiance, the man who is at the centre of the film.
The setting is a small town with a distinctly provincial character, the people are dressed as one would expect of the period, and the buildings are equally of their time. As we enter the house where the young woman lives with the parents of her dead fiance, the shift to the interior is equally convincing. We see the Biedermeyer furniture and fittings, hear the silences, can almost smell the food that is served and admire the genteel bearing of the older couple. Everything conveys a sense of old-world courtesy and dignified behaviour.
The arrival of a young French man who, it is assumed, knew their son, throws everyone’s preconceived ideas into disarray. The father initially refuses to have anything to do with him, regarding all Frenchmen as murderers of his son. The mother is more open and accepting, and the young woman is attracted to his artistic nature and gentle demanour.
In this day and age of the European Union it is hard to fathom the hatred that formerly existed between France and Germany. At one point someone remarks that German children learn French at school and French children learn German. Throughout the film there is an undercurrent of irony as men on each side proclaim their patriotism and sing their respective national anthems with fervour. Sitting in the cinema we know where all this will lead, and feel for all those who will be caught up in the coming conflagration.
It is a telling moment when the father of the dead soldier confesses his guilt at having encouraged his reluctant son to enlist and fight for the fatherland. He says quite clearly that ‘we old men sent our sons to be killed,’ realising too late that his attitude was mistaken. If only the realisation had come earlier, and if only that attitude had not led to another war.
There are several logical flaws in the film, but the acting is superb and the message is convincing. We see all too clearly the ravages of war, and the futility of adhering to nationalist ideas on both sides. The faithful reproduction of the interior of the German middle-class home made me feel as if I were able to look into the homes of my own German grandparents.
Both my grandfathers fought for Germany in the First World War, even though they were married men with children. One grandfather was fortunate enough to die at home shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, while the three other grandparents were murdered in concentration camps by their compatriots. I never knew any of them, but sitting in the cinema I felt as if I were seeing them, listening to the way they spoke, even seeing my grandmother doing her embroidery, serving dinner to her family, and conducting herself in a way that was empathetic, generous and kind. The speech of all the characters portrayed was invariably moderate, civilised and respectful of others.
I believe that all my grandparents were good, kind people whose lives were tragically cut short, depriving me and the rest of my family of their presence. The lack of grandparents has bothered me since I was a child, and it seems to be a part of me that just will not go away. I don’t know if it’s legitimate on my part to find solace in a fairly superficial commercial film, but it seems that I’m ready and willing to accept any substitute for the real thing.