Germany continues its trend of being one of the most cinematically introspective of countries with Berlin ’36, a story that’s almost too incredible to be true.
As the Berlin Olympics draw near, the USA is threatening to boycott the games if the hosts don’t allow Jews to compete in the German team. The Nazis are caught between a rock and a hard place – they are keen to show off their sporting prowess, but unfortunately the best female high jumper is Gretel Bergmann, a Jew. In an attempt to appease those pesky Yanks, the Nazis order Gretel back from England to compete, but at the same time line up a competitor for her title, Marie Ketteler (Sebastian Urzendowsky), who just happens to be a male transvestite.
This ‘true story’ is almost too bizarre to believe (were the two competitors really roommates?) but it highlights just how… well, idiotic fanaticism can be – in the face of scientific and/or common sense opposition, the only solution is apparently to dig your heels in deeper.
Karoline Herfurth is stunning in the lead role. This was a young woman who was so alone yet felt the weight of the world on her shoulders. Understandably, she is conflicted – should she go for gold to show up the regime, or should she refuse to represent her country which she so despises? Herfurth shows resilience and fragility in the face of such a mighty decision, and the overall success of the film rests upon her shoulders. Urzendowsky is good as Marie, though it’s hard to believe that anyone would ever confuse him for a girl. Axel Prahl is brilliant as their trainer, the man who does his best to be fair within the increasingly stifling regime.
German film is so often introspective in the sense that it seems to be forever analysing the recent history of the country. It’s possible that it’s only films concerned with the Holocaust/autocracy/fascism that make it all the way overseas, but nevertheless Germany seems to have a thriving industry that isn’t afraid to question their country’s past. It’s interesting when you compare it to, for instance, Japan, which, in my experience, focuses on the horrid outcome of war rather than the causes.
Berlin ’36 is a strong drama though it falters in the final act, veering horribly close to becoming a run of the mill sports film. This doesn’t counteract the power of this very personal story which has massive ramifications, or the stunning central performance of Herfurth.Rating: