World War II German Film Recalls Dresden Bombing

War crime, payback or a legitimate attack aimed at shortening World War II? The destruction of Dresden on February 13, 1945 is one of the most controversial bombing raids of the conflict. It's now the subject of a new German film that aims to tell the story from several points of view.

Dresden's ruined Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, after the bombing raid.
SLUB Dresden/Abt. Deutsche Fotothek/Richard Peter sen/ddp

Dresden's ruined Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, after the bombing raid.

Germany is remembering the near total destruction of one of its most beautiful cities by Allied bombers in one night 61 years ago with the release of the first feature film about the World War II air raid on Dresden that many here still see as a war crime.

"Dresden - The Inferno," billed as an anti-war film and a love story, culminates in a graphic portrayal of the night in February 1945 when Britain's Royal Air Force dropped over 2,700 tons of bombs that turned the baroque city known as "Florence of the Elbe" into a wasteland of rubble and charred corpses. American bombers followed up the attacks with two daytime raids on February 14 and 15.

The final half hour of the film, the most expensive German made-for-television production to date with a budget of €10 million, pulls no punches. Burning people jump out of windows, a dazed woman drags a blazing baby carriage behind her, families asphyxiate in their cellars as the heat from the fires raging above them sucks out all the oxygen. In one scene, an old woman who knows she will die in the air raid shelter begs a soldier to shoot her. He does.

"The message of the film is 'No more war.' Its central theme is reconciliation," said Günther van Endert of the ZDF public television channel, who co-produced the film.

To this day no one knows how many people died in the raid and the firestorm it unleashed. Initial estimates put the figure at just over 20,000 dead, more recent ones at around 35,000.

The Nazi propaganda machine claimed over two hundred thousand were killed. Even today, Germany's far right, intent on playing down the country's responsibility for the war by portraying Germans as victims, still claims that over 100,000 died in what it calls the "Bombing Holocaust" -- a term that has outraged Jewish groups and mainstream political parties who say it belittles the killing of six million Jews.

Yet many Germans regard the bombing as an unjustified attack on what remained of its cultural heritage after years of bombing raids had destroyed the big cities further west such as Hamburg, Cologne and Frankfurt. In January 1945, it was clear to everyone but the most deluded Nazi fanatics that Germany had lost the war. How long it would last was, however, not known at the time. It took almost three more months for Germany to capitulate.

British historian Frederick Taylor, author of "Dresden: Tuesday, Feb. 13, 1945", argues that while the raid was cruel and ruthless, the city was a valid target because its industries contributed to the war effort.

Books, magazine articles and TV documentaries have in recent years shifted the country's historical debate about the war to the suffering of Germans in the Allied bombing and their mass eviction from eastern territories after the war.  

Balanced or simply convoluted view?

While "Dresden" is part of that trend, its makers were clearly at pains to strike a balance by constantly reminding the viewer of Germany's guilt. The desire to avoid stoking controversy is evident throughout it. Everyone's point of view gets an airing.

In one scene, as the bombs start falling, a German air raid warden stops Jews entering a shelter. Before the attack, a Jewish man about to be deported in a few days' time stares out of his window and says: "I pray to God every evening that he destroys everything here." For him, the bombing comes as a release. Another scene shows Dresden cinema goers cheering at newsreel footage of German V1 rockets, called Doodlebugs by the British, causing death and destruction in London.

The film's heroine, a German nurse, tells her British lover, a downed Lancaster bomber pilot she is hiding, that the Allied bombers raining death on German civilians are "no better than the Nazis." The Germans started the bombing, is his response. A British navigator watching the firestorm down below mutters: "My sister burned to death in Coventry. I'm not shedding any tears for those bastards down there."

Anna (l. Felicitas Woll) and Robert (r. John Light) after the bombing raid in a scene from the movie.
ZDF/Conny Klein/teamWorx

Anna (l. Felicitas Woll) and Robert (r. John Light) after the bombing raid in a scene from the movie.

British pilots toast their dead comrades in a pub: "They gave their lives for England and the freedom of Europe," says one. Then the film swings to Britain's high command where air force chiefs are discussing how best to help the Soviet Red Army as it advances on Germany from the east. "We need a target with high urban concentration, flammable structures and narrow streets," says one. Another points out that years of bombardment have failed to break German morale, so why should destroying Dresden?

Co-producer van Endert said the film wants to come as close to the truth as possible. "It shows that there was a massacre of civilians. But it also explains that there were strategic reasons behind the attack, to help the Red Army end the war quickly. It doesn't say that the bombers took off with the goal of killing as many civilians as possible."

The producers -- teamWorx Television & Film, ZDF and EOS Entertainment, backed by four regional German film development funds -- consulted German and British historians in making the film and the scenes of the bombing are striking and authentic.

Aiming for authentic, settling for schlock

But one problem with the film is that the love story that dominates it doesn't entirely ring true. Aryan beauty Anna Mauth, played by Felicitas Woll, falls for handsome RAF pilot Robert Newman, played by British actor John Light. OK so far. She hides him in the hospital where she works and they consummate their love one night in a hospital ward filled with German soldiers, all of whom are conveniently sleeping soundly. Less credible, however intense their desire.

People gather in front of the rebuilt Frauenkirche, reopened at a ceremony on Oct 30 last year.

People gather in front of the rebuilt Frauenkirche, reopened at a ceremony on Oct 30 last year.

She is betrothed to another so Robert, evidently mad with love, finds a German army uniform and crashes her engagement party which is buzzing with the local Nazi top brass. This is hard enough to believe, but while at the party he even conveniently manages to uncover a morphine smuggling scam her father is involved in.

The film ends with Robert, after surviving the firestorm in Anna's arms, climbing up to the dome of the Frauenkirche, the baroque Church of Our Lady that has since become the symbol of Dresden's rebirth, and surveying with shock the destruction wrought by his comrades.

The Frauenkirche collapsed the day after the raid and was rebuilt only recently, opening last fall as a symbol of reconciliation, friendship and peace. It is topped by a cross crafted by a British goldsmith from Coventry whose father took part in the raid on Dresden.


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