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War einst en wilder Wassermann = Once There Was a Wild Water Sprite

Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, New York, NY 10013; 212-925-0606
Produced by Claudia von Alemann
Directed by Claudia von Alemann
VHS, color, 43 min.
College - Adult
History, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, World War II

Reviewed by Karen Plummer, University of Akron, Akron, OH

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   

What was it like to live in Germany under the Nazi regime? Endless books, feature films, and documentaries provide some insights into this subject, although most of these focus on politicians, military personnel of various ranks, resistance fighters, and the many "racial" minorities persecuted under Nazi rule. This unique documentary provides a completely different perspective of the war: that of a regular citizen who was a wife and a mother living in Seebach, a small village in eastern Germany.

The focus of this documentary is Ludmilla von Alemann, mother of filmmaker Claudia von Alemann. For many years, Claudia had questions for her mother about the Nazi years, but her mother was not ready or willing to answer these questions. After many years of trying to convince Ludmilla that she needed to return to Seebach and face the past, Claudia enlisted her teenaged daughter's help and finally persuaded Ludmilla to make this journey as part of a documentary film that Claudia would produce and direct.

Ludmilla begins her trip to the past sitting beside a lake with her granddaughter, remembering a folk song about a wild water sprite that her mother sang to her as a girl. She moves on to memories of the two generations of her family, almost as if she is trying to avoid coming to her own history. She discusses her upbringing and her shattered dreams as a young girl, wanting to attend university, but unable to afford the expense. Then she had the idea of becoming a librarian, but this too was out of reach as the Nazis encouraged German women to return to the home and leave the jobs to the men.

As a young woman, the official platform of the Nazi party appealed to her sense of justice. Ludmilla admits that she was very attracted to the idea that all people were equal, whether workers or highborn aristocrats. Both she and her husband shared this commitment to equality. But as Ludmilla discusses this, both her daughter and granddaughter begin raising questions. How could she have this commitment to equality of all and still consider the Jews as inferior? Ludmilla has difficulty answering their questions.

It is interesting to watch as she moves from expressions of naiveté (there were work camps, but they weren't hurting the Jews), to excuses (only hearing the positive aspects of Nazism, not the negative; Seebach didn't have a Jewish population so therefore Ludmilla had "no practical experience" interacting with them; and believing the Jews to be inferior was something passed on to her by her parents), to more honestly admitting that she probably didn't want to hear the negatives and didn't want to believe them when she did hear them. By the end of the film, she tells her daughter that the ever-present threat to her own safety kept her from doing anything and admits that she feels great guilt that she didn't do anything to help those persecuted.

This documentary is an important addition to Holocaust studies, as it reflects the attitudes of many of the German civilians of the time. The film takes on an additional significance in the study of generational attitudes, through the questions and reactions of Claudia and her daughter Noemi. One of the most disturbing, yet touching moments in the film takes place on a bench outside Ludmilla's old home. Sitting with Noemi, Ludmilla describes the first time she saw a yellow Star of David. She claims that this was 3 or 4 years into the war, then proceeds to contradict herself and as she makes excuses, we see Noemi becoming extremely sad. As tears fall down Noemi's face, all is silent. Ludmilla looks around, seemingly unconcerned, until she notices her granddaughter's tears. She asks Noemi if she is upset and Noemi turns slightly away from her view. Then Ludmilla asks if Noemi hates her. Noemi's answer is undistinguishable, but it seems obvious that she is disappointed in her grandmother. Later in the film, Claudia recounts that Noemi woke up in the night crying and as she tried to comfort her daughter, Noemi said that she wished her grandmother had been in the resistance. Claudia sadly admitted that she had long wished that as well.

The documentary, in German with English subtitles, features rich color interspersed with black and white and sepia photographs from the von Alemann family albums. War einst en wilder Wassermann (Once There Was a Wild Water Sprite) could be used in undergraduate or graduate classrooms in history or sociology. Highly Recommended.

Awards: Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire (Montreal); International Documentary Film Festival (Rio de Janeiro); Women's Film Festival (Seoul, Korea); Dubrovnik International Documentary Film Festival (Croatia); Women Make Waves Film Festival (Taiwan); Figueira da Fox International Film Festival (Portugal)