J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, January 18, 2010

NYJFF ’10: Berlin ’36

If you do not already know the secret of German high jumper Marie Ketteler, the picture below will probably give it away (“she” is the one on the left). Conversely, her teammate Gretel Bergmann had no secrets. Everyone on the German track team was keenly aware she was Jewish, and never let her forget it. Their strange, unlikely friendship is dramatized in Kaspar Heidelbach’s Berlin ’36 (trailer here), which screens at this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Jewish Museum and the Lincoln Center Film Society.

Though not yet at war with the Third Reich, many concerned Americans advocated boycotting the Berlin games if Germany’s Jewish athletes were not allowed to participate. As the reigning high jump champion, Bergmann’s absence would be especially conspicuous. Reluctantly, she returned to the Fatherland, joining the German team for the sake of her family’s safety. Of course, training is made deliberately uncomfortable for Bergmann. She is constantly harassed by anti-Semitic teammates and is stuck bunking with the weird Ketteler chick.

Of course, the National Socialists never intended to let Bergmann compete, even though she would have been the prohibitive gold medal favorite. Instead, in an act that vividly illustrated the regime’s sick pettiness, a man was recruited to compete as a woman, with the hopes that she would beat out Bergmann for a spot on the time. Yet, even when Bergmann discovered her roommate’s secret, they remained friends. Berlin’s Marie Ketteler is based on the very real Dora Ratjen, who reportedly had genuine medical issues causing her gender confusion. In Berlin, Ketteler was raised as a girl by an abusive mother, even though he wished to live as a man.

Though the Berlin Games had many dramatic stories, Heidelbach’s film focuses solely on the high jumpers. Jesse Owens is maybe seen in passing, but never factors as a character. Likewise, controversial filmmaker and National Socialist propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, who famously documented the games in Olympia, never appears. Strangely though, the film is rather generous in its depiction of U.S. Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage, who was always considered a staunch opponent of any boycott (and not particularly sensitive to the plight of Jewish athletes).

Berlin chronicles a fascinating episode in history, but it is beset by one rather obvious problem. Granted, the historic Ratjen might not look very feminine at all in the photos available on the web, but as Ketteler, Sebastian Urzendowsky simply never looks like a woman or even somewhat androgynous. Ordinarily, that might be a good thing, but it the context of the film, it is a major distraction. He is not necessarily bad in the role, but he just does not look convincing in the part.

To be fair, casting Ketteler is a tricky proposition. Fortunately, Berlin is driven by a winning lead performance from Karoline Herfurth that largely compensates for her struggling costar. She looks like a track star and expresses appropriate anger and fear, without coming across as weak or melodramatic. Berlin also benefits from an effective supporting turn from Axel Prahl as Hans Waldmann, the team’s first coach, who is naturally fired for being too fair-minded and sportsman-like, as well as for having a decidedly un-German mess of an office.

Though the concluding coda featuring interview footage with the real life Bergmann (now Margaret Bergmann-Lambert) might give Berlin a History Channel vibe, most audiences will probably appreciate the chance to hear from her. (Fortunately, she and her family were able to leave Germany before it was too late.) Indeed, hers is an important story people should hear. Though it has its weaknesses, on balance Berlin is a good film that tells its heroine’s story with proper respect and sensitivity. It screens at the Walter Reade Theater Thursday (1/21) and Sunday (1/24), with Bergmann-Lambert attending on the afternoon of the 21st.

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