The German film “Berlin 36,” set against the Nazi-organized Olympic Games of 1936, has much going for it.
There is the pageantry and excitement of the Games, caught in old newsreels, with the Fuehrer himself opening the festivities.
Most intriguing, the film recounts the actual story of the German Jewish athlete Gretel Bergmann, who held the German record in the women’s high jump and was one of the world’s best in her specialty, as well as a top shot putter.
Bergmann’s tribulations focus the film on the deviousness of the Nazi elite, if such focus were needed, and its obsession with supposed Aryan superiority over other races.
Regrettably, the filmmakers stretch the “based on a true story” label so far as to distort the film’s key subplot to heap an unnecessary extra layer on top of the factual edifice of Nazi villainy.
“Berlin 36” opens a year earlier, in London, where the 21-year-old Bergmann, having been barred, like all German Jews, from competing in her native country, has just won the British high-jump championship. In the midst of the London celebration, her father arrives unexpectedly to urge his daughter to return and try out for the German Olympic team.
At first Gretel indignantly refuses, but when her father warns that a refusal would put her family, which has remained in Germany, into great jeopardy, she gives in.
Barring a sudden Nazi fondness for Jewish athletes or for fair play, the reason for the German demand is more complex.
With the rise of a strong movement in the United States to boycott the Nazi Olympics, even Avery Brundage, head of the American Olympic Committee and a Nazi sympathizer, demanded that Germany comply with the international Olympic rules not to bar anyone from participation because of race or religion.
Fearful that the large and popular American team would not show up, Nazi sports leader Hans von Tschammer und Osten staged an elaborate charade of inviting 21 Jewish athletes to train with the German team.
Bergmann, though bullied and ostracized in the training camp, gritted her teeth and clearly beat her competitors while setting a new German mark. This fact was expunged from the official record, but restored by the German Sports Federation in 2009.
But now comes a curious historical twist, which evolves into a major sub-theme. A new Aryan contender, Marie Kettler, appears in the training camp and seems capable of beating Bergmann. Kettler’s character is based on an actual Olympic athlete, Dora Ratjen, who was raised as a girl from infancy but was actually male.
In the film version, the top Nazis know of Kettler’s real sex but conspire to hush up the finding. Kettler and Bergmann are assigned to the same room and eventually become supportive friends.
In real life, the imposter was unmasked as a man in 1938, and exhaustive journalistic research has since shown that even the Nazis had been unaware of Marie/Dora’s actual sex.
In the light of subsequent cataclysmic events, it seems boorish to quibble about this long-ago incident. What is important, however, is not to raise any doubts about the enormity of Hitler’s crimes by adding even minor erroneous accusations.
For the record, Bergmann, the gold medal favorite, was kicked off the German team at the last minute on a trumped-up excuse. Ironically, the top medal went to another Jewish woman, Ibolya Czak, representing Hungary.
As another historical footnote, shortly after the Berlin Games, Hitler ordered architect Albert Speer to design an enormous 400,000-seat stadium in Nuremberg, where all future Olympiads would be held, after Germany conquered the world.
As cinema, “Berlin 36” draws its strength from its actors’ performances. Karoline Herfurth as Bergmann convincingly portrays the emotional ups and downs of the Jewish athlete, and Axel Prahl is particularly sympathetic as her German trainer who puts sportsmanship above Nazi ideology.
Director Kaspar Heidelbach keeps the film balanced in showing both the ecstasy and the ominous undertones of the Berlin Olympics.
If I may be allowed a personal note, in 1936, I was an 11-year-old Jewish boy in Berlin and, as a sports nut, was caught up in the general euphoria of the Games.
I did notice that the glass cases throughout the city displaying the grotesque anti-Semitic caricatures of the lurid Der Stuermer newspaper suddenly disappeared for the duration of the athletic competitions.
The undoubted hero of the Games was Jesse Owens, the African American sprinter and long-jumper and winner of four gold medals, and the popular chant on the streets, with a pronounced German accent, was “Jesse Owens, Jesse Owens, Jesse Owens, U.S.A.”
Pundits have tried to figure out Owens’ popularity among Germans, when Nazi ideology consigned blacks to subhuman status.
In actuality, blacks (unlike Jews), were almost completely unknown in Germany, except as circus performers, and were viewed by the man on the street as curiosities, like The Bearded Lady or The Boy With Two Heads, rather than as objects of ideological or racial hatred.
“Berlin 36” opens Sept. 23 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino. For more on the film, visit www.corinthreleasing.com.