In order to understand the visceral power of Dresden, the acclaimed and award winning German miniseries, it is important to recall the facts that inspired this fictionalization. By the first week of February, 1945, the outcome of World War II was already defined.
Following the successful amphibious operation and landings in Normandy that took place on June 6, 1944, the armies of the Western Allies had completely shattered Germany’s Western Front. And at the Eastern Front, the Soviets had occupied the cities of Stettin and Breslau, and had crossed the Oder River. By February 8th, Stalin’s war machine was situated less than 40 miles from Berlin. However, the Nazis did not want to see the writing on the wall and refused to surrender. In a senseless act of the megalomania for which he was legend, Hitler had promised to fight until the last man, woman, and child were dead.
During the Yalta Conference on February 4th, the Allied forces decided to bomb Dresden, the capital of the German state of Saxony. The strategic objective was to overwhelm the Nazi army, destroy the German industrial complex, and paralyze any rail traffic into Berlin and Leipzig. At the time this operation was seen as necessary to force the capitulation of Germany. As a consequence, between February 13th and 14th, the British and American air forces carried out four raids and released over 3,900 tons of high explosive bombs and incendiary devices.
The strategic bombing of Dresden ultimately destroyed over 13 square miles of the city, obliterated more than 78,000 dwellings and damaged nearly 90,000 more, smashed almost 200 factories, and claimed the lives of around 40,000 Germans. And quite dramatically, because Dresden had narrow streets and its buildings were made of flammable materials, the bombing produced a deadly firestorm that swallowed up the city. It is believed that the temperatures peaked at around 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Witnesses report that the engulfing heat was so hot that, even in the absence of flames, people would spontaneously combust. Furthermore, the huge difference in temperature between adjacent alleys produced fierce tornadoes made of fire and debris.
On that fateful date, Dresden became an inferno of truly apocalyptic proportions. With the exception of the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of that same year, Dresden probably stands as the most terrifying man-made catastrophe. Because of the high number of civilian deaths, the decision of using strategic bombing to obliterate Dresden continues to be a point of heated debate among historians and academics.
As Germany continues to confront its cultural guilt for the atrocities committed by Hitler and his Third Reich, it almost appears to be a taboo for its citizens to talk about the suffering they had to endure under the Nazi regime. After nearly 60 years, the international public at large appears to continue to be afraid of confronting the social, cultural, and political complexities that led to Nazism. Indeed, just consider how most films and books that take place during the WWII years, and portray sympathetic German characters, are met with intense controversy and harsh criticism.
In this regard, Dresden is an award winning TV miniseries that joins the previous efforts of Heimat: Eine Deutsche Chronic (aka Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany, Edgar Reitz, 1984) and Der Untergang (aka Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004) to further the understanding of how regular Germans confronted the horrors of WWII. As its name suggests, Dresden presents a rather accurate historical recreation of the fiery destruction of the German city. In addition, this miniseries comments on the difficult moral issue of justifying or condemning the strategic bombing of densely populated areas.
Recently released on DVD, Dresden takes place in the days leading up to the Allied bombings. John Light plays Robert Newman, a British bomber pilot whose plane is downed by German fire after a combat mission. Shot in the abdomen by some farmers, and surviving the excruciating winter weather, Newman manages to find his way to Dresden. Possing himself of as an injured German soldier, he befriends and falls in love with Anna Mauth (Felicitas Woll), a devoted nurse.
As Newman and Mauth attempt reconciliation of their feelings with the social and political turmoil of the era, the specter of war and death inexorably approaches them. Combining historical fact within dramatic fiction, Dresden is a truly exceptional miniseries. Indeed, Dresden won the German Television Award for the best miniseries and Felicitas Woll won the Bavarian Television Award for best actress.
But perhaps the most admirable aspect of Dresden is the careful reconstruction of how Dresden looked before the Allied attacks. As showcased on the enlightening making-of documentary that accompanies its DVD presentation, the filmmakers went to great lengths to achieve a high level of realism. The sights of the city, for instance, were created with a combination of highly detailed sets and computer graphics. In addition, the recreation of the fiery demise of Dresden is as terrifying as eye popping, as actors had to work on sets that were set afire with huge flames and large amounts of smoke. And no less impressive, the production designers of Dresden managed to acquire very realistic props and costumes.
The sense of realism and authenticity of Dresden is further enhanced by its rather unique visual structure. Here, several scenes begin with what appears to be authentic footage from the time, and we can see the old sepia tones, a shaky camera, as well as scratches and dirt across the entire screen. And then, this scene slowly transitions into the actual footage of the miniseries. In this regard, Dresden brings to mind Jack Smight’s Midway (1976), which was popular upon its theatrical release for combining real and fictional footage of American and Japanese planes in brutal dogfights.
But nevertheless, what makes Dresden such a compelling miniseries is the way it uses the torrid romance between Newman and Mauth to study some of the ethical issues that surround war. For instance, Dresden makes evident how, even though strategic decisions are made by generals and politicians, it is the low ranking officers and civilians that are made to bear the harsh consequences of armed conflict. At the same time, Dresden questions the need, the value, and the morality of the obliteration of the German city.
In addition, Dresden elegantly presents one of the most complex social issues of warfare: the cultural guilt that some individuals have to endure due to their indirect and involuntary association with the political ideologies of their home country. Here, Newman bears the guilt of the strategic bombings of German cities with a high civilian population. And, on the other hand, Mauth has to tolerate the blame for the Jewish prosecution by the Nazis.
As a side note, Kurt Vonnegut, the distinguished American novelist, was a prisoner of war during WWII. Unfortunately, Vonnegut was imprisoned by the Nazis inside an old slaughterhouse near downtown Dresden and he was one of the seven US soldiers that survived the devastating air raids. At some point in his career he described the obliteration of Dresden using expressions such as “utter destruction” and “carnage unfathomable”. Quite naturally, this terrifying experience had a huge impact on his subsequent literary work. Indeed, a devoted pacifist at heart, Dresden became the core of at least seven of his books, including the famous science fiction novel Slaughterhouse Five.
In any event, Dresden does not attempt to bring a new perspective to the issue of the strategic bombing of the German city. Also, it does not feel condemnatory or apologetic for either side of the conflict. Instead, Dresden shows that warfare is a chaotic and complex cultural phenomenon, which most likely will haunt all of its participants with deep regrets and irreparable losses.