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‘From Hilde, With Love’ Review: An Affecting Resistance Romance

Two years after their Berlinale prizewinner “Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush,” veteran German director Andreas Dresen and his regular screenwriter Laila Stieler reteam for the moving drama “From Hilde, With Love.” Drawing on the compelling real-life case of the Hilde and Hans Coppi, a young married couple arrested and executed for treason by the Gestapo in wartime Berlin, the film cross-cuts between an idyllic summer romance and much darker later events. While the couple’s relationship is necessarily a crucial part of the story, the focus is on Hilde, who was imprisoned while eight months pregnant, had her baby in prison, and faced the guillotine a short time later. It’s an emotionally relentless sequence of events which naturally provides a touching role for Liv Lisa Fries, who gives a subtle but layered performance.

Dresen and Stieler make a number of smart choices. Most of the Nazis here are not the hulking brutes generally portrayed by Hollywood. Hilde’s arresting officer is a polite young man who asks the pregnant woman’s permission to place his hand on her bump, which he calls “a miracle”, before telling her mildly that his wife is expecting too. He even goes so far as to solicitously offer her a snack during her initial interrogation — and this isn’t the heightened pseudo-courtesy of high-status Nazis sometimes employed in popular cinema to chilling effect. It’s more of a reminder that nice manners don’t count for very much at the end of the day. You are what you do, not how polite you are while you do it.

Outcomes and intentions also prove to be salient themes with regard to the actions of the Red Orchestra, the anti-Nazi resistance group of which Hilde and Hans are both members. Dresen grew up in East Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and makes a conscious effort to avoid presenting the Red Orchestra as superheroes of the sort glorified during his childhood. Instead, they are presented as ordinary young people with a conscience. 

Hilde’s acts of resistance mostly take the form of flyering, writing letters, and sticking up slogans on walls. It’s easy to imagine that, had she been born in a different era, she would have used social media and other digital tools to organise and campaign for social justice. The group is essentially a relatable and well-meaning bunch of attractive young people, who hang out in parks in the summer, smoking and sitting around a fire, some dabbling in polyamory, most occupied by their own romantic lives to a similar extent that they are engaged with activism. 

Historians might quibble over some of the details, but the film’s strategy is to make the Red Orchestra feel relatable and contemporary, with dialogue and wardrobe and hair choices designed to reflect this. There is hardly a shortage of existing films taking a relentlessly historicist approach, so there’s probably room for an aesthetically more flexible version too, and it’s an approach that plays well in tandem with the fact that there is a carelessness to many of the group’s actions. At times it feels almost as if they are playing at being spies, not fully cognizant of the risks they are running. At one point, posing as a book club, they are challenged on the content of their regime-approved literature — and only Hilde has actually done the reading to back up their flimsy cover story. 

The historical record underscores the agonising futility of their actions: Only one of the messages they risked everything to transmit to Moscow ever made it through, and it simply said, “We wish our friends the very best.” Was it worth all those lives? The film reads as a memorial to the group’s courage rather than their achievements, suggesting that it’s possible for legacy to lie in the attempt, rather than the outcome.

It’s a handsomely assembled picture, with Judith Kaufmann’s cinematography leaning into the sylvan charms of the Red Orchestra’s hangout, underscoring the brutality of the prison environment to which the film constantly returns. Jörg Hauschild does a good job balancing the edit between these two kinds of scene, with the prison narrative proceeding in a linear fashion to its grim conclusion, while the vignettes from prior to Hilde’s arrest jump forwards and backwards in time. It’s almost as if we’re accessing Hilde’s memories, giving us a strong sense both of how she ended up in her current horrendous predicament, and what the group risked for the sake of expressing their values.

That question of the extent to which someone is prepared to put their life on the line, whether that’s personally, professionally, or in an absolute and literal sense, for the sake of standing up for their beliefs, has always provided a rich seam for artists to mine. Indeed, it’s a moral dilemma with which some filmmakers at the Berlinale have engaged this year, with organisations like Filmworkers for Palestine calling for the festival to make a statement supporting a ceasefire in Gaza. From Hilde, with Love might be set almost eighty years ago, but the themes explored seem destined to remain eternally urgent and relevant.

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