Felice Schragenheim was a German Jew who, unlike most other Jews in Germany, was not rounded up and sent to a concentration camp. She was one of the lucky ones who managed to "hide in plain sight," changing her name and hoping no one would recognize her and report her to authorities. Outgoing, direct and supremely self-confident, Felice (Maria Schrader, in a galvanizing performance) had remained in Berlin for reasons that are not entirely clear, although the movie suggests that she felt her odds of survival were better there than if she tried to escape. When the film opens, she is living at a girlfriend's apartment, working for the editor of a Nazi newspaper and calling herself Felice Schrader.
Felice refuses to lead a safe life. Aware of the precariousness of her situation, she is determined to enjoy every moment she has. Much of her time is spent with lesbian friends, several of them Jewish and passing themselves off just as she is. Through one of them, Ilse, she meets Lilly Wust (a stellar Juliane Köhler), the beautiful middle-class wife of a German officer who is fighting at the front. Lilly, not terribly bright, is a conventional woman who leads the life expected of her. She married a handsome man she didn't love and now has four young sons. Felice's friend Ilse is the boys' baby-sitter. Despite her conventionality, Lilly longs for passion and seeks comfort in the arms of a succession of worthless men. When Felice flirts with her, she is shocked, but also fascinated. The two women begin an intense affair that puts them both at great risk.
Max Färberböck, an award-winning television director making his first feature, and co-writer Rona Munro have pulled off the difficult feat of making us accept what on the surface seems to be an odd pairing: the clever, sophisticated Felice and the beautiful but shallow Lilly. That Felice, who is so guarded with her feelings, should lose herself so completely in Lilly is as surprising as the fact that Lilly, until then strictly heterosexual, should fall so deeply in love with Felice. Yet we accept it as part of the mystery -- and power -- of real love.
Both lead actresses are superb. (They shared the Silver Bear at the 1999 Berlin Film Festival.) Looking like a silent film star, Schrader conveys a fierce toughness and determination but also an unexpected vulnerability and warmth. And as Lilly, Köhler shows us a woman whose life veers off in a totally unexpected direction and who finds, to her own surprise, that rather than shrink from the implications, she embraces them. The supporting cast also shines, especially Detlev Buck as Lilly's husband, Johanna Wokalek as Ilse, and Inge Keller as Lilly at age 85.
The story of Aimée and Jaguar -- nicknames Felice gave herself and Lilly -- came to light when Lilly Wust told her story to writer Erica Fischer. Fischer's subsequent book, published in 1994, was based not only on those interviews but also on the letters and poems Wust and Felice had written to each other, which Wust had carefully preserved.
Beautifully shot by British cinematographer Tony Imi and featuring a captivating score by Polish composer Jan Kaczmarek, the movie also gives us a picture of Berlin during the war, something rarely shown in films, at least those that reach American shores. Despite the aerial bombardment of Berlin by Allied forces, wealthy Berliners tried to ignore the misery around them, stepping across the rubble and over the dead bodies on their way to fancy nightclubs and bars. The juxtaposition of wealth and misery here is almost surreal.