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  • Visualizations of the Bombing of Dresden:The Efforts of German Television to Capture History
  • Stephan Jaeger

Any representation of the bombing of Dresden on 13 and 14 February 1945 must reflect upon questions of guilt and punishment and right or wrong. Did the air and bombing war contribute to the defeat of Nazi Germany? Was it militarily justified or an example of "Allied terror bombing" (Overy)? Can the Germans be portrayed as victims? And how does a filmic representation avoid taking sides by demonizing one side of the conflict or by providing a kitschy and unsatisfying reconciliation? Is there a way to create an authentic representation of the experience of the air raids? And for cinematic approaches in particular, how is it possible to visualize and simulate individual experiences such as the survival in the basements during the air raids, the experience of the firestorm, and the horrors of the destruction as such? In other words, there are three representational challenges: an ethical one, a perspectival one, and the one of visualization or simulation.

The sixtieth anniversary of the bombing of Dresden and the reopening of Dresden's Frauenkirche in October 2005 occasioned a number of publications and representations on Dresden's history and its cultural memory. Among these are two prime examples of Germany's new trends in docudrama and documentary. The first one is the documentary Das Drama von Dresden (The Drama of Dresden), directed by Sebastian Dehnhardt and under the supervision of Guido Knopp, which won the International Emmy Award for best documentary in 2005. The second one is the three-hour television film Dresden by the German production firm teamWorx, a hybrid of melodramatic love narrative, historical docudrama, and epic event or disaster film (Cooke 281; Ebbrecht 107–09), which was directed by Roland Suso Richter and produced by Nico Hofmann. It was shown in two parts on German public television by ZDF on 5 and 6 March 2006 and in a slightly shorter version during the Berlinale Film Festival in February 2006. It was seen by a television audience of about 12 million ("12,68 Millionen"; "Trennkost").

Both films try to regain the past and the notion of an authentic representation of how the air raids were experienced. Historical experience is the key for both ambitious film projects. They must find representations that allow their audience to enter into the experience of something that seems unique and fully accessible only to survivors who experienced the bombings. Yet Dresden and [End Page 407] The Drama of Dresden employ two different notions of authenticity. Dresden aims for accuracy in its historical references, while developing a melodramatic love triangle and following the patterns of Hollywood disaster films, in particular James Cameron's Titanic (1997) as Paul Cooke has shown (287–92). The film is structured around a somewhat unlikely romance between Anna Mauth (Felicitas Woll), a German nurse, and Robert Newman (John Light), a British bomber pilot hiding out in the hospital where Anna works. The third person in the love triangle is the surgeon and assistant medical director Alexander Wenninger (Benjamin Sadler), Anna's fiancé. The film is framed by the political and historical situation in Dresden in January and February 1945. However, the actual bombing night – the American day raid on 14 February is not mentioned – is represented in only about forty minutes.

In contrast, The Drama of Dresden, also commissioned by ZDF German public television, covers all three waves of bombing and focusses exclusively on 13 and 14 February. The DVD cover describes the project as "historical real time reportage" that stages the last thirty-six hours in which Dresden "perished." It claims to move the viewer back into the last months of the war and is based on a number of biographies of Dresdners who survived and tell their stories. Their remembered stories are illustrated by "docudrama" scenes in which the bombing night is reenacted.

A comparison between two apparently different television genres – one entertaining historical event film, one historical documentary – can show the possibilities and limitations that representations of the air war – and often the representation of suffering in war in general – face, if they make certain representational choices. In the case of...


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