Title: Berlin ’36
Director: Kaspar Heidelbach
Starring: Karoline Herfurth, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Axel Prahl, August Zimer
One needn’t be a fan of Mike Leigh to know that secrets and lies offer up rich narrative possibilities for filmmakers. So, too, do the allure of nonfiction tales. But not all true stories are created equal, as “Berlin ’36” emply demonstrates. A German period piece embellishing of the nonfiction story of a transsexual Olympic athlete who stood the chance of greatly embarassing the Nazi regime during the country’s hosting of the quadrennial games, the movie unfolds with such a singular lack of dramatic heft as to almost defy logic.
When high jumper Gretel Bergmann (Karoline Herfurth), one of Germany’s best gold medal contenders, is discovered to also be Jewish — and thus stand counter to the propagandistic Aryan narrative of ethnic inferiority and superiority — authorities scramble to find a replacement. Their solution comes in the form of gangly farm girl Marie Ketteler (Sebastian Urzendowsky). Are the Nazis so desperate to lend world-stage credence to their claims of supremacy that they would knowingly back either a gender-uncertain candidate or, more outrightly, a man?
Despite such potentially tawdry material, the direction feels pedestrian and workmanlike. There needn’t be salacious leering, but some sort of imposition of style or intrigue would certainly be nice. Filmmaker Kaspar Heidelbach’s movie, though, is all show, and just jumbled tell. It’s based on the case of Dora Ratjen, who was determined to be male several years after the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But it seems married to certain facts, wrongly, while discarding other historical underpinnings and indications in the name of dramatic license. The result sags, and feels listless, from almost start to finish.
Thoughts of the recent documentary HBO Films’ documentary “Renee,” about tennis player Renee Richards, who had a sex change operation and changed her name from Richard Raskind, occasionally pop up while watching “Berlin ’36,” and not without good reason, since Heidelbach bookends his film with documentary footage. The result piques one’s interest in the story — the real story — while also simultaneously eliciting yawns at the thinly sketched psychological motivations ascribed to character motivations and decisions herein. Hey… maybe one can lead a life of gender subterfuge and still be boring, right?
Written by: Brent Simon