Spring Of Life

Spring Of Life

Of all the strange and frightening ideas the Nazis came up with in WWII, the Lebensborn project is one of the least known and most misunderstood. Often thought of as a Nazi baby farming operation, the truth manages to be more innocent in implementation and more sinister in implication than many suspected. Milan Cieslar's award winning Czech film Spring Of Life blends from both fact and fiction in an attempt to portray at least part of the truth hidden beneath the misinformation.

First things first - Nazisploitation this aint! Despite the striking cover art and a strapline shouting "an innocent woman trapped inside Himmler's evil plan for an Aryan master race", Spring Of Life is a surprisingly serious film. Those expecting something along the lines of Ilsa or Gestapo's Last Orgy will be sadly disappointed. At its most explicit the film shows very brief nudity and some minor violence, working hard to show by implication. This movie is almost lyrical in its telling, shying away from exploitative elements and showing restraint in the handling of the more controversial elements of the tale.

Indeed, the depiction of ordinary Czech life in an isolated farming community brings the acclaimed German series Heimat with its refusal to hurry the action along or develop into a conventional narrative structure. A young woman, Gretka (Monika Hilmerov´┐Ż), comes to the attention of the Nazis due to her great natural beauty. After a series of examinations and tests, Gretka is enrolled in the Lebensborn project - A prestigious honour given only to those who meet the highest physical Aryan ideals. Transferred to a luxurious sanatorium, we follow Gretka's advancement through the program. Here she is indoctrinated in Nazi ideology, undergoes a strict physical fitness regime and is taught new skills such as fencing and shooting. Gretka is surrounded by many young women of her own age, all selected for their form and lineage, who befriend and giggle with her. Life is like a girl's summer camp, only with swastikas and jackboots.

For all the grooming the Nazis do, something irks Gretka. Her naturally inquisitive nature leads her to look behind the closed doors and to befriend Leo, the sanatorium's Jewish caretaker. What he tells her in his little room hidden beneath the main building cuts through what she's been taught above, and she becomes increasingly concerned over the direction her life is taking.

Spring Of Life is an excellent film in many ways. The cinematography is stunning in places, recalling the fractured beauty of Come And See. Light glints through forest trees, and a thick blanket of snow outside emphasises the warmth contained within the Nazi walls of the stately home where Wagner's music covers the tableau's put before us. The film rarely falls into a conventional narrative structure, instead providing us with a series of snapshots depicting Gretka's time in the Lebensborn and beyond. It's when the film starts to slip in mainstream elements that it is less successful. Gretka's blossoming relationship with Leo, for example, doesn't really convince - with the amount of Nazi propaganda she'd be receiving 24 hours a day, I'm not entirely sure she'd be willing to jump into bed with him at the first opportunity. She also seems to be given an awful lot of freedom to wander off for romantic liaisons with Leo, even seemingly vanishing for a while after her arranged marriage to an SS officer. No-one questions why she's not been up in her bridal chamber when she finally returns, and she manages another visit to the caretaker later the same night.

The final sections of the film, where Gretka leaves the sanatorium, are the least successful. Here, the tableau of images feel disjointed, quickly jumping through time to cover a large number of events. The movie still remains powerful, and there are several great touches such as the imagery of Gretka writing an identification number on her wrist so she can find someone after the war, mirroring the tattoos given in concentration camps. It's a shame that after the deliberate stride the film sets for most of the picture the sudden sprint towards the finish line jolts the viewer out of the film for a while. Only when the film revisits familiar places and characters in the closing scenes that we are once more absorbed. Here we witness the aftershocks of the war, people attempting to make new lives for themselves, or sense of what they have been through.

Gretka's tale as told in Spring Of Life is a powerful and often fascinating one, but there are some questions regarding its historical accuracy. From what's portrayed on screen you could be forgiven for believing that Lebensborn was a forced breeding project, where young women were taken from their homelands, indoctrinated and then forced to become pregnant by choice Aryan studs. This isn't entirely true and the facts behind the case are somewhat more complex, as is revealed in the excellent and revealing 30 minute presentation by historian Michael Leapman included on the disk.

Lebensborn was to some extent a breeding program, in that it was designed to encourage the birth and development of healthy Aryan babies, but it wasn't a forced breeding program. Himmler's project was designed more as a support network for the wives and partners of SS officers, offering the very best in maternity care and facilities to those with the blondest hair and bluest eyes. Places within the operation were highly exclusive, the idea being to selectively breed only the finest, strongest and "racially pure" children through carefully chosen Nazi parents - Eugenics in action.

While there is no evidence of young women being snatched and forced into a coercive breeding project, there is plenty of evidence of the kidnapping and forced Germanisation of very young children. While the abductions were not explicitly part of the Lebensborn project, it is known that a percentage of the children viewed as being most racially pure were housed at Lebensborn homes. Due to the SS destruction of records, exactly how many is still unknown.

Spring Of Life is not perfect, but it is a fascinating and often beautiful film. Many images will stay with you for some time afterwards - the ritualised Nazi baptism of babies, for example - and the visuals are greatly enhanced by the emotive and considered use of music. Redemption have put together an excellent package for this film. While the extras may not be plentiful they are of very high quality and relevant to anyone wishing to further study the issues and events raised in the film. Although the picture and sound may not quite be reference quality this is a highly worthwhile disc. The unusual subject matter and restrained treatment make this feel fresh in many ways, and despite the slow pace this is an absorbing viewing experience. Well worth seeking out.

Review by Paul Bird

Released by Redemption Films
Region 2 - PAL
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review