PALM SPRINGS, California (Hollywood Reporter) - The Nazi era continues to throw up amazing real-life stories, and “Berlin ‘36’” is certainly another one.
The story of Gretel Bergmann is hardly an obscure tale, however, as much has been written over the years about the German-Jewish athlete cruelly tricked into preparing to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Nazi government officials only to be thrown off the team for “underperformance” despite being Germany’s best woman high jumper.
This German film, released in that country last September, screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Festival play is all that can be expected outside of Europe, but “Berlin ‘36’” does make a provocative selection certain to stir debate.
The film, well made in every way, smartly focuses on an unlikely friendship between Gretel and the athlete who ultimately replaced her — a high jumper who was later revealed to be a man! You can’t make this kind of thing up.
Nor do the filmmakers need to — it’s all part of the crazy history behind the Nazi’s desperate attempt to forestall a threatened American boycott of the Games unless Germany allowed its Jewish athletes to compete for places on the German team.
The film also marks another occasion where German filmmakers find ways to make films about the Nazi era by focusing on outsiders and rebels whether they are members of the White Rose resistance movement; John Rabe, the “Oscar Schindler of China”; or, in this instance, a Jewish-German and a cross-dressing athlete. The only major alteration of historical facts here is changing the name of the false female from Dora Ratjen to Marie Ketteler.
The film refuses to sensationalize any of this. Rather, it uses the circumstances of these athletes to underscore the perverse lengths German officials went to in maintaining the fiction of Aryan supremacy and humiliating or manipulating those the Third Reich deemed inferior.
Under Kasper Heidelbach’s direction, Karoline Herfurth gives a sensitive performance as the young and often bewildered Jewish-German woman who is pulled this way and that in the political tug-or-war that was German sports in the 1930s.
Lothar Kurzawa’s screenplay has Gretel’s father come to London, where he sent her for her own safety once she was expelled from the German club for being Jewish, to beg her to come back to compete for the Fatherland. The family would otherwise be in danger.
Gretel endures taunts by fellow competitors, a change in coaches when she outclasses her competition and finally — although it is something of a backhand compliment — a man disguises as a woman to beat her.
Sebastian Utzendowsky, who plays Marie, doesn’t look much like a woman but then neither did the real Dora Ratjen if you look up photos online. He was an individual born apparently with unusual genitalia making it hard to determine even as a baby his exact sex. The movie fudges this a bit by insisting Marie had a crazy mother who wanted a daughter so badly she makes her child cross-dress. But the film insists the Nazi sport authorities were aware of the unusual nature of this particular German female athlete.
The strength of the movie lies in these two performances that speak to a friendship that could probably only happen when two people are trapped by circumstances beyond their control. Neither one can “come clean.” It would put their families and own lives in too much danger. So they seek each other’s companionship in an us-against-the world situation. They have their spats but ultimately have no one else to turn to. There is a real poignancy here that mad, passionate movie love stories often fail to achieve.