It will be difficult for an American to grasp the subterfuge that took place during World War II in Germany as the Nazi regime sought to produce an Aryan race by deliberately mating blond Scandinavians with German males to produce a superior issue. This important aspect of life in war-torn Germany and Norway is explored in the German film “Two Lives,” which is based on a true story. The characters speak in German, with English sub-titles, which may be off-putting for some viewers.
The film begins in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Katrine Evensen Myrdal (Juliane Kohler) had been raised in East Germany but has lived in Norway for the past twenty years, happily married to a handsome and likeable sea captain, Bjarte Myrdal (Sven Nordin), and they share their home with Katrine’s mother, Ase Evensen (Liv Ullman), and their unwed daughter Anne, who has a baby girl named Turid.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Juliane Kohler - Wikimedia
The Lebensborn Program
During the German occupation of Norway, Ase Evensen had a child, Katrine, by a German occupation soldier who was removed from her mother and sent to an orphanage in East Germany. When the allies won the war, the German father was killed and Asa was labelled a collaborator and scorned by Norwegian citizens. There were many of these babies, called Lebensborn or war children, who suffered the same fate, ending up in an orphanage or being adopted by a German family, never to know their original parentage. Twenty years later, Katrine managed to escape from her captors and fled to Norway by boat to be reunited with her mother.
The dark side of this project surfaced much later when the East German police recruited these orphans when they were adults, trained them in espionage, and returned them to Norway as agents to spy on the families with whom they were reunited. Oftentimes, the recruit would be given a new identity, claiming to be the child of a targeted family. Documentation was difficult to prove, so the program flourished. It has been determined that there are still some of these Lebensborn agents living in Norway who have never been uncovered.
A Clandestine Meeting
In one of the opening scenes, the viewer witnesses Katrine visiting East Germany secretly to examine the archives of defunct orphanages. She has asked about retired nurses and severs a name from the archives and destroys it. A short clandestine meeting occurs with a man named Hugo who refers to Katrine as “Vera.” Unless the viewer holds onto that image, it may not have much meaning in light of the rapid series of events that follow.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Ken Duken - Wikimedia
Katrine is visited by a German lawyer, Sven Solbach (Ken Duken) who wishes Katrine and her mother Asa to give testimony in a trial against the Norwegian government for its actions in separating the children from their mothers. Katrine is adamant at first, not wishing to get involved, but eventually agrees. The handsome young lawyer takes a shine to Katrine’s daughter Anne, and is treated hospitably by her husband Bjarte. Katrine is grilled in court about specific details in her past which she clearly does not remember, another clue that Katrine is not the person she claims to be. The lawyer asked her about a specific event of sexual harassment inflicted on Katrine by a German official, which Katrine stated she did not recall. The official was in the courtroom and could have suffered serious consequences if the harassment was true.
In a flashback, the real Katrine also fled from East Germany, having unearthed her own real parent, Ase Evensen, and has managed to make her way back to Norway and to Ase’s home. Ase is away, but the girl is greeted by (the other) Katrine who feigns hospitality to her at first, then attacks the girl who runs out into the forest. The man called Hugo joins the chase, and the young girl is shot, burned in a pyre, apparently leaving no remains. Decades later, newspapers reported that the charred body of a girl was found in that desolate woods, with no means of identification possible.
Now that we know that Katrine is actually Vera, the entire picture is clearer. However, Katrine is approached by German authorities and told she must leave her family immediately, giving her a passport and tickets to Cuba. She is told that she should tell her husband that she has another lover with whom she is leaving. Katrine’s world falls apart. Her years with Bjarte have been the happiest time of her life, even though she has had to live with her secret for her entire married life. She has never had to report on the activities of Bjarte, and they have always been a loving couple.
Defying the orders she has received, Katrine tells her family that she is not Ase’s daughter. She does say to As, though, that Ase has always been her mother. Her family of three is aghast at the entire story that Katrine reveals. Even though she has lived a lie, her love for all of them has never been a lie.
Katrine leaves for the airport while her family still ponders the horrible truth of what they have heard. As she is descending the ramp leading to her plane, she suddenly turns back, and gets into her car to return home. You will not learn the ending here; you will have to see it for yourself.
Liv Ullman - Wikimedia
Having remembered Liv Ullman as a lovely young ingénue, throughout the film I mistakenly believed that Liv was playing the part of Katrine. What a surprise to learn later that Katrine’s mother Ase was portrayed by Liv Ullman. Her part was highly understated; she had very few lines to speak. It was hard to believe this elderly lady was the Liv Ullman that I remembered. She has had a wonderful, successful career and it is nice to see that she will still come foward when she is called.
The film was one of the saddest I have ever watched. When viewing foreign films such as this one, I am often prompted to say a prayer of gratitude that we live in a country that does not tolerate the activities which are sometimes played before our eyes.