The Quality of Mercy (film)
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|The Quality of Mercy|
|Directed by||Andreas Gruber|
|Produced by||Andreas Gruber, Provinz Film|
|Written by||Andreas Gruber|
|Music by||Peter Androsch|
The Quality of Mercy (original title: Hasenjagd – Vor lauter Feigheit gibt es kein Erbarmen) is a dramatization of the events surrounding the Mühlviertler Hasenjagd, a Nazi war crime that took place near Linz, in the Mühlviertel region of Upper Austria, just before the end of the Second World War. The movie's original title translates as "Rabbit chase – for sheer cowardice, there is no mercy", a reference to the name given by the SS to the manhunt for the hundreds of prisoners who managed to escape from Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. Nearly 500 tried to escape, over 300 made it to the nearby woods, and of those, a mere 11 managed to survive the three months till the war ended. Most were shot on the spot or beaten to death when they were found, 57 were returned to the camp. The movie attracted 123,000 spectators in Austria, making it the most successful movie of 1995.
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The movie starts on a morning in January 1945. The spectator is advised of the real events on which the movie is based. The first pictures show images of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, and afterwards the inside of barrack 20 – the “death block” – is shown. 500 Russian soldiers, who have refused to fight for Germany after being arrested, sleep on the floor. Then the wake-up-call rings. Having been put on a harsh diet, many get up only laboriously, while some are completely unable to do so any more.
Among the prisoners of war who crawl outside onto the courtyard are also the Russian officers Michail and Nikolai, whose destiny serves as the central thread in the movie. It is winter, and the men, who are dressed much too lightly, try to warm each other. Then a stone falls down the wall. There is a message is wrapped around it: Block 20 shall be cleared in a month!
Due to their hopeless situation, a planned breakout is carried out in one of the following days. The prisoners overpower the Kapos, construct shoes and weapons out of blankets and other items and say goodbye to those who are too weak for the escape. Afterwards they leave the barracks. While the tower guards are distracted with fire extinguishers and missiles, tables and chairs are piled up in front of the walls. Only 150 of the 500 manage to escape into the night, among whom are Michail and Nikolai. The majority, however, dies in the confines of the camp.
The sirens which resound from the camp wake up the neighbourhood at half past three in the morning. Among the inhabitants of the area is the Karner family. The people streaming out of their houses are informed by the SS that 500 “felons” have escaped from the camp and have fled North. All available men from Volkssturm, Wehrmacht on holidays, gendarmerie and Hitler Youth would have to participate in the chase. The felons are not to be arrested, but rather killed on the spot.
In the next few minutes, the attitude of many inhabitants of the region becomes clear. Fredl Karner, who is unfit for military service due to amblyopia, looks the other way when he sees three of the fleeing Russians on the very spot where the SS leader has just delivered his speech. Gendarme Binder also disapproves of the chase, as the felons would not do him any harm. The instructions to his group are unmistakable: “None of us will see or hear them, much less arrest them.” Thus, he is in direct opposition to everyone who is eagerly taking part in the chase.
At dawn, the chase starts. As Mrs Karner makes her way to church, a couple of refugees run out of the forest, the chasers close on their heels. Her son Fredl is also part of the group which kills the refugees in full view of Mrs. Karner and her little daughter. Fredl will witness many such dreadful killings in the next few hours.
Eventually, Fredl’s group also catches one of the prisoners alive. Nobody can bear the thought of shooting him, so they decide that Fredl and another man will take him to the SS. On the way, they witness the execution of a couple of captured prisoners and turn around with their prisoner. Hours later, they are still wandering around with him, not knowing what to do. Finally they decide to let him go. Fredl gives the prisoner his jacket, and the other one gives him a piece of bread, but just as Fredl starts to take off his shoes, the SS appears and shoots the Russian.
Michail and Nikolai have meanwhile hid in the church steeple with their friend Andrej. From there they watch their colleagues being rounded up. While searching for food, they are seen by the grocer Lehmberger, who shoots at them. Another passerby simply ignores them. They come to a hall which is used for movie screenings and other events. In a room above the hall, hay is stored. In that room, they hide under the hay until a peasant woman comes and takes away some of it with a pitchfork, badly injuring the hidden Michail in the process. When all is clear, they leave the storage room. On the run, they are separated from Andrej, who is shot.
Eventually they come to the farm of the Karner family. While Nikolai goes to sleep in the hayloft, Michail’s search for food drives him to the courtyard. Despite the objections of her husband and worries expressed by Fredl, Mrs Karner welcomes him and gives him a hot meal. Mitzi, the daughter of the house, brings clothes and shoes, whereupon Michail burns his workwear. Afterwards they bring clothes and food to Nikolai, who is hiding in the hayloft.
In order to protect his family, Fredl continues to participate in the chase, which has meanwhile been named the “bunny hunt”. In the meantime, Gendarme Birker has accommodated some of the refugees in the local jail. Lehmberger, however, discovers them and propels them onto the courtyard, where he shoots them in front of the helpless gendarme.
On the way to the church service, which Mrs Karner attends as usual with her youngest daughter Nanni, the two come across some Nazi soldiers who are walking in the direction of their farm. She sends her daughter back to warn Mitzi so that the two girls can hide the Russians in a better place. The house search is unsuccessful; however, this is not the case everywhere. In the countryside, Fredl and Berghammer are on the chase. When Berghammer wanders off for a few minutes, Fredl sees a refugee hiding under a footbridge. Moved with compassion, he offers a warm drink to the Russian. However, Berghammer discovers them and insists that they take him prisoner. Despite Fredl's protests, he cannot be softened. They deliver the prisoner to the SS. When Fredl is told by the SS leader to shoot him, he refuses. Berghammer takes care of it instead. Gendarme Birker must then arrest Fredl and take him to the Gestapo in Linz; however, he is eventually released. Afterwards, Fredl hides with Michail and Nikolai in the attic on the farm.
One after another, the fugitives are found. Most are shot, but many of the prisoners freeze or starve to death in the harsh winter.
Spring is coming, and the hasenjagd is nearly forgotten. Michail and Nikolai even work at the farm. Then the war ends. Nobody cares that Berghammer has discovered in the end that the two Russians were hiding at the Karner’s place. They are much more concerned about destroying incriminating files and uniforms. Lehmberger is found hanging in his store.
It is explained in the closing credits that just nine of the 500 Russian soldiers are known to have survived (from a total of 11 escapees who survived the chase without capture). Michail and Nikolai go home. Today, they live in the former Soviet Union.
After the credits, a final scene shows a courtroom. The judge renders judgment upon the mayor of the village in which the Hasenjagd has taken place. He has been indicted for inciting the villagers to hunt the prisoners down. Due to many conflicting testimonies, the mayor is acquitted, though the court remains unconvinced of his innocence.
- Oliver Broumis - Michail
- Merab Ninidze - Nikolai
- Volkmar Kleinert - Herr Kamer
- Elfriede Irrall - Frau Karner
- Rainer Egger - Fredl Karner
- Kirsten Nehberg - Mitzi Karner
- Rüdiger Vogler - Gendarm Birker
- Franz Froschauer - Viktor
- Christoph Künzler - SS-Offizier Strasser
- Thierry Van Werveke - Berghammer
- Special jury prize, San Sebastián International Film Festival
- Audience award, Diagonale, 1994
- Upper Austria culture award for film art, 1994
- Austrian ticket 1995
In autumn 2006, Hasenjagd was released on DVD. Apart from the film, there is a chronological table and a 60 minute behind-the-scenes documentary about the film Aktion K by Bernhard Bamberger which compares the movie with the actual events. The latter juxtaposes interviews with local residents about the film and the actual history with archival footage and the eyewitness testimony of Mikhail Ribchinsky, a survivor of the Mühlviertler Hasenjagd.