by Bryan & Heather
Ever since watching the dark, gripping German film Lore (and, to a lesser extent, the 2014 film Fury), Bryan has found himself interested in frank portrayals of the aftermath of the Second World War, something that Heather already had some experience studying through her German minor and study abroad in undergrad. We have thus been casually on the lookout for more media in that vein, and while it isn’t all that common, we were nevertheless lucky enough to recently come across exactly what we were looking for on Netflix: a (yet again) German-produced period drama set in occupied Berlin entitled The Defeated.
The Defeated follows the story of Max Mcloughlin (Taylor Kitsch), a New York Police Department detective that has been sent to 1946 Berlin to liaise with German police forces and begin to construct an effective, post-Nazi civilian security force. As he familiarizes himself with the bombed-out ruins of the once-proud German capital, Max must also navigate a tangled web of corruption and brutality as he hunts not only the “Angelmaker,” a gynecologist-cum-crimelord who assists and protects disadvantaged young women in return for their loyalty, but his own brother, an American who, after witnessing the horrors of Dachau, has gone AWOL and begun hunting down Nazis with single-minded brutality. Meanwhile, Max’s German partner Elsie learns what it means to live in a nation occupied by allies who are not particularly friendly to each other, finding her family at the tender mercies of a Russian commissar intent on molding the new Berlin into the Soviets’ own image.
The Defeated is truly remarkable in the scope of mid-century history it crams into such a sumptuous, personal period piece. Berlin and its downtrodden residents look every inch a manifestation of the show’s title, and yet, as if in defiance of how the rest of the world sees them, the show’s German characters drive a story that really comes down to pursuing agency and justice in a world where neither seem to be easy to find. Key to this is the (usually forgotten or overlooked) portrayal of all the Allies, not just the Soviets, as more interested in their own aggrandizement than the common good. American officials help Nazis escape detection, Soviets assassinate minor German officials who grow too popular with the West, and soldiers of every nationality rob, murder, and rape Germans in the thousands. Lest it be mistaken as drawing equivalency between the Allies and the Nazis, however, the vigilante storyline of Moritz Mcgloughlin serves to remind audiences of just how horrific the previous German regime was.
If anything, The Defeated might be a little too insistent on using the atrocities of the Nazis as a separate, shadowy, foil for postwar Berlin. Along with Max, Elsie and her “scarecrows” (unarmed volunteer policemen and women) are unambiguously the protagonists of the show, and while they do hold a few conversations that vaguely reference justice and their country “getting away with murder,” there wasn’t an explicit enough recognition that, while all Germans were not members of the Nazi party, they were nonetheless complicit in their regime’s actions–especially given recent historical consensus that Germans were not unaware of the Holocaust and that they refused to really take responsibility for it until the 1960s at the earliest.
Ironically, however, this oversight may even further strengthen The Defeated’s core theme: that de-Nazification was not quite so morally unambiguous and successful as we like to think, and that sometimes defeating clear evils leave a host of lesser evils in its wake. We hope that a second season, supposedly in the works but delayed due to the pandemic, will have the chance to develop this and other themes even further, but in the meantime, The Defeated offers a fascinating, thrilling mirror into our own perceptions of what it meant to deal with the aftermath of victory.