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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A War-Torn Berlin Reborn in St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG -- September was a rough month for residents of St. Petersburg's grim slum along the Obvodny Canal, an industrial district not far from the city center. Rubble and burned cars littered the street as smoke rose from residential buildings recently bombed. Hitler Youth scrambled to a cannon position protected by sandbags, and blasts rattled people's sleep throughout the night.

It has been 58 years since the end of World War II, but actors playing German and Soviet troops were battling incessantly in this working-class neighborhood, transformed by Germany's Constantin Film company into a district of Berlin circa April 1945, for the shooting of "Der Untergang," or "Sunset."

One city posing as another is not unusual in the film industry. What startled in this case was that the capital of the Third Reich was set in this city, which lost perhaps 1 million people during a German siege lasting almost 900 days from Sept. 8, 1941, to Jan. 27, 1944. The word "irony" was on everyone's lips.

"We know there is a degree of irony in it," said Thomas Friedl, a managing director of Constantin Film, "and we carefully checked in the beginning how the local reaction would be to our film being shot in this city where one of the greatest crimes of humanity took place."

While the production of "Sunset" was headline news in many Russian newspapers and on television during the almost two months of filming, which ended Sept. 23, there were no protests.

"Making this film here 10 or 15 years ago would probably have been impossible because of the uproar and protest from veterans' groups, who were more numerous and stronger then and sensitive to any German presence in Russia," said Alexander Pozdnyakov, a film critic and historian at the Lenfilm Studios. "But today Russians understand Germany is our close partner."

Still, the tremendous interest in the film by the Russian press kept the producers on edge and occasionally feeling defensive.

"This is an antifascist film and nowhere in it do you see Hitler praised," said Yana Bezhanskay, director of Globus Film, Constantin's Russian partner.

The similarities between war-torn Berlin and some of St. Petersburg's early-20th-century slums, with their examples of the Northern Art Nouveau architectural style, amazed Constantin Film executives when they began looking for a shooting location last year. (The company's credits include "The Hours.") "The main reason we're here is the architectural resemblance to Berlin before it was destroyed," Friedl said. "We looked at a number of cities, including Prague, Kiev, Sarajevo and even Copenhagen, but St. Petersburg proved the best."

St. Petersburg's victory in the pan-European competition is a testament to the neglect the city suffered under decades of Soviet rule. Except for a liberal sprinkling of bricks and burned-out cars, the German-language street and store signs, and the smoke machines, it seemed the German filmmakers did little to convert the dilapidated neighborhood into a war-torn Berlin.

Much of "Sunset" is based on the remembrances of Traudl Junge, Hitler's secretary from 1943 until the very end. Though Junge wrote the reminiscences in 1946, they were published only shortly before her death in February 2002. The film is directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel.

Hitler is played by the Swiss-born actor Bruno Ganz, best known for his role as a troubled and love-struck angel roaming Berlin in Wim Wenders's 1987 film, "Wings of Desire." The premier is scheduled for September 2004 in Munich.

The film begins with the July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler by disgruntled generals. The first serious cracks in the Reich have appeared. Nine months later, Hitler is in his bunker under the Reich Chancellery. On April 26, he celebrates his 56th birthday.

On April 30, the Soviet troops begin their attack on the Chancellery building while Hitler lunches with Junge and Eva Braun. Afterward Braun and Hitler say their goodbyes to loved ones and commit suicide. On Hitler's orders, their bodies are burned.

But the film does not end with the death of Hitler, who thought it better that his people perish than surrender, and so the destruction of Berlin continues for another eight days. An important part of this segment is the story of a 12-year-old Hitler Youth member who witnesses the destruction of nearly all his comrades and his city.

"The real hero of this film is the city of Berlin," Friedl said. "While the Soviets liberated Germany from the Nazis, the city's people suffered greatly."