At the outbreak of World War II, the Countess Nina von Halder was lots like her Berlin friends: she deplored Hitler, spoke out against him but had done really nothing to help stem the Nazi tide.
Yet once Hitler had invaded Poland, the outraged Von Halder's life was transformed. She immediately joined the underground movement dedicated to saving Jewish lives. Other German Christians did as much, but the countess went a step further: she dared to take a Jew as her lover shortly after the war started.
Jacqueline Bisset (in her film-for-cable debut) portrays the countess in the romantic, suspenseful, elegant, well-wrought HBO production "Forbidden," premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. on HBO. Jurgen Prochnow, the lean, handsome star of "Das Boot," is cast as her lover, Fritz Friedlander. Both stars are at their very best, and the chemistry between them is terrific.
The attraction between the two is as understandable as it is dangerous. They are both great-looking, grown-up aristocratic sophisticates. A divorcee, the countess has turned her back on her conservative old Silesian family to come to Berlin to study to be a veterinarian.
Her lover is a poet, an intellectual, and the son of a distinguished judge. He lives in a mansion with his regal widowed mother (Irene Worth, in an ultimately heroic portrayal), who firmly believes that her late husband's eminence will protect her, which is why she has remained past the time when it was still possible for Jews to get out of Germany.
The lovers decide to defy time and place, even if it means that eventually Nina will have to hide Fritz in her apartment at very great peril.
Directed with crisp elegance by Britain's Anthony Page, "Forbidden" was adapted by Leonard Gross from his book, "The Last Jews in Berlin." That Nina and Fritz had real-life counterparts, Countess Maria von Maltzen and Hans Hirschel, allows for the kind of detailing of survival strategies essential to making the incredible credible as the suspense builds and builds.
The risks Nina takes, not just for Fritz, but for other Jews as well, would defy belief, were they not anchored by those details and were it not for the countess' strength of character and implacable, sometimes recklessly headstrong determination, so convincingly expressed by Bisset.
Unquestionably, Bisset is the dominant force, but this actually allows Prochnow the more complex characterization. He must play a man who is completely masculine yet essentially passive, a man whose nature as well as circumstances cause him to defer first to his mother--she's widowed and he's her beloved only son--and then to the countess, both of them very strong women.
It is no easy task to re-create the Berlin that was all but obliterated by the Allied bombings from the fragments that remain on the Western side of the Wall, yet production designer Toni Ludi and cinematographer Wolfgang Treu succeeded amazingly well, tying together actual locales with archival footage and starting each major sequence in a matching grainy black and white, gradually bleeding to color.
"Forbidden" (Times-rated Mature because of adult themes) not only entertains but gives a sense of what life must have been like in Berlin for both Christians and Jews during World War II.