Habermann is based on true events. The story is set in a small village in Sudetenland between 1937 and 1945. The persistent discussion about the validity or invalidity of the Beneš government’s decrees which provided the legal cover for this wrong, shows that this subject, which has been taboo for such a long time, is still raw. But what may not be concealed must be told: 1937, a small village in Sudetenland. The Saw Mill owner August Habermann, a Sudeten German, is the biggest employer in his village and a respected and rich man. He marries Jana, a young, beautiful Czech woman. The fact that she is half Jewish does not really bother him. Habermann is not interested in politics or ideology, least of all the national socialist one. Just like his best friend, the Czech forester Brezina. In his mill, Habermann employs German and Czechs alike, he speaks both languages and is deeply attached to the country where Germans and Czechs lived for centuries – an attachment which is not defined by the colours of nationality.
It is a mere coincidence that Habermann is getting married on the very day that Hitler is getting the Sudeten Germans “home into the Reich”. And yet it is a bad sign. For the wedding is briefly disturbed by Major Koslowski and his officers. From this first meeting in the ballroom of the spa hotel near the village, which the Wehrmacht requisitions as their control centre, Habermann and Koslowski cannot stomach each other. When the war breaks out, Habermann, who is now the father of a little daughter, cannot prevent his younger brother Hans, a fervent patriot, from volunteering for the Wehrmacht. He also cannot prevent some of his Czech workers from starting to fight the Germans. A hideout for partisans is built with Habermann’s lumber. Koslowski suspects Habermann. When Habermann is in a tight spot and Koslowski already believes to have caught him in an act of sabotage, Brezina can save his best friend one more time.
But it is too late to stop the tragic events. The war makes itself felt even in this rural Sudeten German idyll, which has been spared actual fighting: trains with wounded soldiers make short stops at the village’s railway station. In one of these trains, Jana and her friend Martha, the forester’s wife, find Hans, Habermann’s brother, who has been badly wounded at the eastern front.
Against his will, for he still is a loyal follower of Hitler – they hide him in the forest near the village. Jana looks after her brother-in-law and is able to make Hans begin to realize how blind he has been. Mašek, one of Habermann’s journeymen, shoots two German dispatch riders in a panic reaction. While looking for the perpetrator, Koslowski detects Hans’s hiding-place. Now, Koslowski has Habermann where he wanted him. He plans to have 20 Czech villagers shot in retribution – and Habermann is to compile the list of people to be shot. If he refuses to do this, Koslowski will have Jana and their daughter Melissa deported to the near concentration camp.
Mayor Hartl has told him that Jana is half Jewish. Habermann and Koslowski get drunk together and Habermann manages to buy ten Czechs from Koslowski using the Habermann family’s jewellery and gold. But Koslowski forces him to take part in the selection of the remaining ten Czech victims. And the whole village becomes witness of Habermann’s betrayal. Koslowski does not keep his promise. After the execution of the ten Czechs, he has Jana and Melissa deported to concentration camp. Habermann’s will to live is broken. He does not listen to Brezina’s advice to flee, when the Soviet army approaches at the end of the war, but stays on – sitting apathically in front of his house. The Czechs, now free and in a collective frenzy, torture him to death driven by lust for revenge and greed. Soviet soldiers free the deported inmates, among them Jana and Melissa, who is now 6 years old. The two return home immediately, but they only find the looted and burnt mill. In the house, Jana detects a secret of the Habermann family which was one of the reasons for the whole tragedy.
Director Juraj Herz was born on 4 September 1934 in Kežmarok, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia). Interestingly, acclaimed Czech animator Jan Švankmajer was born on that very day. Although Herz attended the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (AMU) with directors such as Jaromil Jireš, Jiří Menzel, Evald Schorm and Věra Chytilová, he studied in the puppetry department with Švankmajer. The other directors listed above, all of whom have become poster children for the Czechoslovak New Wave, were enrolled in the Filmová a Televizní Fakulta Akademie Múzkých Umění v Praze (Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague). In his interview with Ivana Košuličová, Herz suggests that he was looked down upon and excluded from the movement because he was considered “a puppet artist, not a film director”.
Today, Herz remains on the margins of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Monumental texts on the movement, such as Peter Hames’ The Czechoslovak New Wave and Antonín J. Liehm’s… read more