2001 - Germany - 158 minutes
Writers - Josef Martin Bauer (novel & screenplay) and Bastian Clevé
Director - Hardy Martins
My Rating - 4 of 5 Stars
A soldier in combat is a strange beast. I think the word "beast" is a good one for when you take young men or women who are, not at heart, killers and indoctrinate them as to the evils of the "enemy" and then place them in an unbelievable stressful situation in which their lives are in danger every minute they transfer from human to beast. Of course in every war, there are horrific tales of soldiers who go so far that they completely lose any semblance of humanity, but those are the rare cases. Most of them are just trying to survive so that they can return to their families.
This film is the true story of one such soldier. He just happens to have been a German soldier in World War II. All he wants to do is survive and return to his wife, daughter, and unborn child. One could easily substitute him with a guy in Iraq today who just wants to live and get back home.
The first filming of this story was a mini-series for German television made in 1959. In Germany, it was know as a "street sweeper" in that it was watched by so many people that the streets were basically deserted during the time of its broadcasts.
The script is from a novel by Josef Martin Bauer first published in 1955 (link to Amazon.com) that Bauer based up interviews with the real man. In the novel and film, the soldier is given the name Clemens Forell.
As Far… begins at a train station where Forell is leaving for the Russian front and saying goodbye to his wife, who is pregnant, and his daughter. He promises them both that he will return. Next we see him as a prisoner sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor in Siberia. Needless-to-say, the conditions at the prison camp - provided by weather and sadistic guards - are brutal.
Forell is at a slight advantage in that he is a mechanic who can repair the old engine running the power supply. Forell is caught trying to escape and punished by being placed in an isolation cell which is really just a hole in the ground open to the elements. After his time in isolation, he is sent back to the mines where his fellow prisoners beat him almost to death. We find later that they were forced to do so. The commanding officer, who sees something special in Forell, sends him to the infirmary rather than just letting him die. This provides the opportunity for Forell to be helped to escape by the doctor who is also a prisoner.
Thus begins an incredible 8,000 mile journey back to home and family. Through sheer guts and determination accompanied by some heartwarming acts of kindness of strangers, Forell completes his journey and is finally reunited with his family.
Bernhard Bettermann achieves a brilliant piece of acting in playing Forell. From what I can determine, Bettermann is basically a German television star, but he has the combination of toughness, sensitivity, and good looks that could easily make him a major film star.
This is one of those stories that, if you didn't know it were true, you wouldn't believe it. Books and films that depict the almost super-human abilities of men and women to survive harsh treatment and conditions help us to reflect upon the value of life - no matter our current condition. Such stories of real people and their accomplishments are always worthy of attention.
June 25, 2007