Judge P.S. Colbert has become more lenient, now that he's seen Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
"Dieser Film beruht auf einer wahren Geschichte." (This film is based on a true story.)
Though its fact-to-fiction ratio is debatable, Berlin '36 successfully entertains in the manner of a TV movie with high production values, pitting tight direction, fine performances, and sumptuous cinematography against a cloying orchestral score that telegraphs every move. It's a surface-deep examination of an astoundingly odd historical wrinkle, wrapped in a fleet one hundred minutes.
While celebrating her record-setting victory in the British High Jump championship, German-born Jew Gretel Bergmann (Karoline Herfurth, Vincent Wants To Sea) gets a surprise visit from her father (August Zirner, The Counterfeiters) who informs her the US is threatening to boycott the upcoming Olympic games in Berlin, due to Hitler's race policy, which dictates no Jewish or Black athletes are allowed to compete. That very same policy forced Gretel's relocation to the UK, after she was banned from competing in her homeland.
Herr Bergmann: "Certain people want you to return to Germany. You're to take
part in the Olympic training."
Having her back in Deutschland for training mollifies the American government, but Gretel's ability to outperform her (non-Jewish) German teammates infuriates Nazi supervisor Hans von Tschammer und Osten (Thomas Thieme, The Lives Of Others), who rails in frustration: "Lord, there must be someone who's better than this Jewess!"
A meticulous scouring of the countryside for possibilities leads to a remote farm and the home of "Marie" (The quotation marks are the movie's, not mine) Ketteler (Sebastian Urzendowsky, The Way Back). Her high-jump form could use some work, but the deep-voiced, squared-jawed, and flat-chested Marie seems the surest bet to beat Gretel for the gold.
There are trials. There are tribulations. Secrets are exposed. Lessons are learned. Nazis: Bad! Everybody else: Good. Or at least better, if only by default.
Despite its copious gifts, this morality play is what ultimately dooms Berlin '36 to minor film status. Instead of opening a window into an almost unimaginable set of circumstances, the film presents a stylized silver-screen steeplechase, moving quickly and easily through its paces to a heavy-handed and anti-climactic finish.
Presented in a lustrous standard definition 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, Berlin '36 looks terrific, perhaps the prettiest film about Nazis this side of Leni Riefenstahl. An equally fine Dolby 2.0 Stereo German language track beautifully underscores the visuals, providing accompaniment for English and English SDH subtitles.
The sole bonus feature is an ambiguous snippet from a 2009 interview with the real Gretel Bergmann, provides a slight coda, leaving more questions than it answers. We may never know how much of what happened in the film was true to history. A cursory bit of online research revealed a decent amount of information, which I've decided against sharing so as to avoid potential movie spoilers.
It's hard to resist a sports-themed film wherein the star athlete gets such motivational advice as "The more brown filth they throw at you, the better you'll do." Try Berlin '36, you may like it. Just don't use it to cram for a history exam.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Corinth Films
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