The Walter’s Choice series, Line of Separation, now streaming on PBS Passport, is a thoughtful period drama that examines the difficulties endured by the everyday men, women and children trying to live quietly — or even secretly — under a regime of fascism and fanaticism in Germany during World War II. The Germany of this time period has long been a metaphor employed by the Western world to represent evil, human apathy, and the error of blind loyalty. But as the 20th century came to an end and the 21st began, more books and films began to address the plight of the German people in this era, including Schindler’s List, Stalingrad, The Book Thief, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Jojo Rabbit — and, now, Line of Separation.
Created by Robert and Josephin Thayenthal and directed by Alexander Dierbach, Line of Separation focuses on the political and social problems of the fictional town of Tannbach at the end of World War II. While the little town and its denizens may be fictional, they deal with very real, historical problems: at the seemingly sudden fall of the Third Reich, they find themselves directly in the path of a descending Iron Curtain, being split in twain by American and Russian forces.
This larger problem leads to many smaller problems for the citizens of Tannbach: land dispossessed, families split along borders and beliefs, citizens ‘resettled,’ corrupt soldiers, and all the difficulties inherent with being absorbed into Stalin-era Russia. The show handles the complexities of these issues with aplomb, delving into the sorrow of losing a loved one with the same delicacy as it handles the disgrace of losing one’s land. And while each character maintains their own individual weltschmerz under the new regimes, their stories weave together into a complex tale that showcases both the shame of a people who are trying to rehabilitate their national horror, as well as the simple joys that can be found, even when all is lost.
At the epicenter of the show is the von Striesow – Erler family, who provides a narrative for the seismic class shift that struck Eastern Germany following its defeat by Russia. At the outset of the series, we see the von Striesow’s — part of the German monarchy, and upper-class landowners — taking in a group of refugees led by mother Liesbeth Erler (Nadja Uhl) and her two sons, Friedrich (Jonas Nay) and Lothar (Ludwig Trepte). As the show unfolds, the von Striesow’s see their land taken away and parceled out to lower-income families as Georg (Heiner Lauterbach), the patriarch, is sent to re-education camp, and his daughter, Anna (Henriette Confurius), is forced into hiding. Meanwhile, Friedrich Erler, falling in love with Anna, strives to gain a parcel of land that once belonged to the von Striesows. His gambit works, and the two are wed, building a small life for themselves on their little plot of land. After a time, Friedrich becomes involved with the communist Land Administration, and soon climbs the ranks while Anna works the farm. While their story has a quiet simplicity and romance, their peace is threatened by outside forces — most notably, corrupt government officials for the USSR.
While the show has a delicate hand for interpersonal drama, the brutality of war, and the political machinations of this time, it seems to betray a quiet hostility for Russia in particular. While many of the American characters are portrayed as brash, callous and unsympathetic — a not atypical stereotyping — the Russians, and those aligned with them, are handled very differently. From naïve hopefuls like Konrad Werner (Ronald Zehrfeld), the head of Land Administration, to the heartless Kommandant Kowaljew (Karel Dobry), and the Nazi-turned-Russian Soldier Hubertus Prantl (Wowo Habdank) the communists are at turns cruel, corrupt, and downright bloodthirsty or trusting to the point of willful ignorance. As West Tannbach slowly begins to thrive under capitalism, the East grows hungry and impoverished. Farms slowly collapse under unrealistic yield goals and families continue to be separated in a communist effort to hide emigration numbers. And while many of the anecdotes in Line of Separation are true, the series focuses in on them while time-jumping over the issues that plagued Allied Germany, including overrun refugee camps, continuing enmity toward Jews, and the forcible, often violent expulsion of Germans from border regions. It’s a curiously one-sided portrayal for an otherwise elegant show.
For the show is just that: elegant. Its careful cinematography, courtesy of Clemens Messow, takes full advantage of the sprawling landscape of Kryry, the area of the Czech Republic where Line of Separation is filmed. Messow’s deft hand doesn’t stop with the landscape, though. His capability for impeccable framing intersects beautifully with performances that are well-honed, nuanced portrayals that fully engage viewers, creating a wholly believable world. Add in the gorgeous costuming of Gabriele Binder, and the seamless editing of Simon Blasi and Matthew Newman, and you have a series that extends beyond your average war docudrama. Though it's point of view may be a bit uneven, Line of Separation stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the best war stories of our time.