Edith Han was an outspoken young woman studying law in Vienna when the Gestapo forced Edith and her mother into a Jewish ghetto. Edith was taken away to a labor camp, and when she returned home months later, she found her mother had been deported. Knowing she would become a hunted woman, Edith went underground, scavenging for food and searching each night for a safe place to sleep. Her boyfriend, Pepi, proved too terrified to help her, but a Christian friend was not. Using the woman's identity papers, Edith fled to Munich. There she met Werner Vetter, a Nazi Party member who fell in love with her. Despite her protests and even her eventual confession that she was Jewish, he married her and kept her identity a secret.
This documentary could just as easily have used the title of a recent potboiler: "Identity.'' And though the ever-deepening story takes its name from Edith Hahn-Beer's autobiographical 1999 book, "The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust,'' questions of identity - and the continual submersion of self to stay alive - are the heart of the story. "Edith Hahn willed herself to disappear,'' says the narrator, Susan Sarandon. It is a bewitching and harrowing tale, told by the woman who survived the impostures in which she cloaked herself. The narrative has the engrossing folds and twists of a novel. Hahn-Beer loses her true love to cowardice, her mother to the Nazis. Years later, she gains a family of her own, after assuming the identity of an Aryan she knew years earlier. She burrows so completely into this falsehood that she marries a kind German, who's also a Nazi sympathizer. (By the end of the war, he's drafted and she takes on the absurd and frightening position of the title of her book.) And she so deeply sublimates her feisty, fiery personality in playing the role of a compliant wife that she comes to love her second existence. Finally, what threatens to become a life sentence of self-abnegation is commuted because the man who loved Hahn-Beer and abandoned her earlier persuaded the young woman into hiding her real identity papers in the lining of a book. Despite the dramatic sweep of her life, the actual threat of extermination for Hahn-Beer, a law student in her late 20's who endured in Nazi Germany by secreting away much of herself, gives the movie a grave, transfixing air of real-life existentialism. — Elvis Mitchell
2003-06-13 | Elvis Mitchell | Read the New York Times Review of The Nazi Officer's Wife