San Diego Jewish Film Festival preview: ‘Berlin 36’

Berlin 36. Running time: 103 minutes

By Norman Manson

Norman Manson

SAN DIEGO–Over the years, the Olympic Games, supposedly a time of international brotherhood, have instead produced notable examples of strife and tension. One of the best-known examples of this animosity occurred at the so-called “nazi Olympics” of 1936, when the atmosphere was pervaded by the Hitler regime’s emphasis on anti-semitism and notions of “Aryan superiority.”

One of the least well-known instances of this simmering hostility is depicted in this recently-released  film, Berlin 36, which deals with the nazis’ treatment of Gretel Bergmann, an outstanding high-jumper who is Jewish.
The film, made in Germany with English subtitles, combines Gretel’s story with that of the person being groomed to replace her, so that, in addition to anti-semitism, there is the issue of gender misidentification.  Overall, the film demonstrates – as if this still needed – the nazi policy of deceit and subterfuge that was among the regime’s hallmarks throughout its 12-year rule.
Based on a true story, the film’s plot hinges on Germany’s desperate attempt to avert a threatened boycott of the games by the United States if Jews are barred from participation.  Bergmann is made the “fall guy” in this devious endeavor. She reluctantly returns to Germany after winning Britain’s high-jump title. She does not want to represent the nazi regime, but is talked into returning because of implicit threats to her family.
After going through training with the German team, a time marked by almost constant harassment by fellow athletes and others, she eventually is barred from competing because of a trumped-up injury story. Her replacement fails to win a medal, and afterward is disqualified when “her” male gender comes to light. Apparently, the use of men in women’s competition was not new when it was widely practiced by East Bloc countries, especially East Germany, during the Cold War.
An interesting participant in this drama of international intrigue was Avery Brundage, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, who, in trying to avert a U.S. boycott, gets the Germans to iNclude Ms. Bergmann on the proposed high-jump team. Not until the Americans are en route to Germany is  Bergmann barred from competing.
Brundage was a vicious anti-semite, probably best known in that era for his role in removing two Jewish track stars –
Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller – from a relay team. But. ironically, in this case he tries to get a Jewish young woman on the German team, not because of any pro-Jewish feeling, but to prevent a U.S. boycott.
Berlin 36 is a vivid account of some aspects of life in Hitler’s Germany at a time when anti-semitism was rampant but the worst was yet to come. .Bergmann’s family still seems to be thriving. They live in a substantial upper-class house and do not seem directly threatened  but there is the veiled threat of trouble if they do not get their daughter to compete for Germany. And the attitudes depicted – the “Heil Hitler” salutes and other manifestations – tell convincingly of the tenor of the times. For that reason alone. this film is very valuable  viewing for today’s large majority who have no memory of that time when the storm clouds of future catastrophe were gathering over Europe and the entire world.

There are a few technical flaws: The cuts between scenes sometimes are too quick, leaving the viewer momentarily confused. Also, some of the English subtitles are not quite “in sync” with the German dialogue. But in bringing to light a little known piece of modern history, Berlin 36  is very much worthy of of its place in the Jewish Film Festival.

Berlin 36 will be the opening feature of the Jewish Film festival. It will be shown at 7 p.m. Thursday, February 10 at the Clairemont Reading 14 theater, 4665 Clairemont Drive, San Diego. It also will be shown at 4 p.m. Sunday, February 13 at the Ultra Star Mission Valley theater, 7510 Hazard Center Drive, San Diego.

Manson is a freelance writer based in San Diego

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