Stars: Karoline Herfurth, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Axel Prahl, August Zimer, Klara Manzel and John Keogh
Director: Kaspar Heidelbach
Scriptwriter: Lothar Kurzawa
Degeto Films/Corinth Films
German Language (subtitled)
No rating but could be PG 13 for themed material
Running Length: 100 minutes
Screened at Kansas International Film Festival (KIFF) October 2011
The German government in the 1930’s certainly had their ideas about race and culture. It was all right to do informal business or greet someone of the Jewish faith, but that was it. Separate but equal was sliding downhill fast. The 1936 Berlin Olympics held, and still holds, center stage for many reasons including Jesse Owen. What a day that must have been. In “Berlin 36,” based on the true story of the champion woman high jumper, Gretel Bergmann (Karoline Herfurth), we see that the women’s side had just as much controversy, abet quietly. Bergmann was a Jew. To appease the American government, a Jew was allowed to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. However, the word “compete” came to have a different interpretation by Germany altogether.
Gretel Bergmann was an accomplished and talented young athlete. High jump was her sport and her parents, partly to protect her, sent her to England in her teen years. There, she became the British Woman’s Champion. This brought attention to the Bergmann family, and a call for Gretel to come home and compete for Germany. Hesitantly, she arrived only to find the pressure that the Nazi regime had placed on her family and then on her. She could practice, compete on their terms, but not win. All the while, the American Ambassador, Avery Brundage (John Keogh), seemed unaware of what was going on, other than that as soon as Gretel’s name was on a roster to compete, the American athletes were on their way to Berlin.
During training, Gretel’s first coach (Axel Prahl) encourages her, but is quickly replaced and disgraced. Gretel is always winning. The second coach (Robert Gallinowski) starts out firm, but he, too, has to walk a fine line or be fired. Gretel was supposed to have her own room, but ends up getting a room-mate, Marie Ketteler (Sebastian Urzendowsky.) A girl with arms that a halfback would envy and a walk decidedly not feminine. (Part of the film is Marie’s story.) Though Gretel’s training schedule is tossed about, she and Marie become friends.
“Berlin 36” gives you a bird’s eye view on what goes on behind the scenes in government and Olympics. Athletes are pawns in the power struggle. Anything to win. The end of the film shows what happened to Gretel Bergmann and Marie Ketteler. Hollywood made some adjustments to the story.
Production values are good and the atmosphere of the 1930’s is keen. Karoline Herfurth’s Gretel rarely smiles and can toss out a sarcastic remark handily. The scene stealer is Sebastian Urzendowsky as Marie Ketteler, who has to maintain a duel identity and does so with clarity. The rest of the cast is a bit wooden in presentation. The sport of high jumping may not have meant much to observers, but you can see the strength it takes to propel oneself upward and over that bar without assistance. Some jump forward, others from the side. Some have stage fright while others have ice in their veins. But they are athletes competing in games, and the game of politics definitely belongs elsewhere.
Copyright 2011 Marie Asner