BERLIN — Shortly after World War II ended, American cameramen filmed people living in Berlin. Technicolor, an expensive proposition at the time, showed people on the streets, apparently happy to have survived. The film shows the joyful faces of people, some sunbathing, others swimming in the river. But the footage is telling from what is missing in the shots: men aged between 20 and 45.
About 11 million German men were held as prisoners of warat the time. Death was on every city corner and, yet, was barely visible: mounds of turned earth, sometimes marked with small crosses or steel helmets, was its only sign.
What is clear in the film is the natural beauty of that summer.
"The summer of 1945 was nature's gift to us," said actor Günter Lamprecht, remembering the first few months of peace after the war. "It was beautiful, a perfect summer."
Lamprecht, who was a 15-year-old student at the time, said he felt that the bright weeks between June and August of 1945 were "heaven's compensation for what I had gone through, for all the nonsensical deaths of the last few years."
This mood in Berlin, the capital city of the former Reich, which was almost completely destroyed by Western and Soviet air strikes, is reflected in the film. Producer Konstantin von zur Mühlen, who later discovered the film, digitally remastered it in high definition.
During the "Battle for Berlin" that raged from April 16 to May 2, 1945, almost 80,000 Red Army soldiers died, a third of them in the city. Another 130,000 victims of war — soldiers, civilians, prisoners — were buried in military cemeteries around Berlin, in locations hidden from the lens of the camera.
But the dead didn't stay quiet for long.
The temperature began to climb steadily that summer and the heat settled on the makeshift graves in Berlin. "They are already talking of grave plague," wrote Ruth Andreas-Friederich, who had been a member of the Resistance in Berlin.
The hastily buried bodies were exhumed and quickly reinterred in large burial sites. But they did not receive coffins; wood was needed to rebuild houses and for cooking. "Those who are buried nowadays get a cardboard box at best, draped in black paper and an aluminum foil cross on top," Andreas-Friederich wrote.
This was, of course, not recorded in von zur Mühlen's film.