Berlin 36 Review
Between 1934 and 1938 Dora Ratjen competed in the women’s high jump representing Germany. Making her way from regional champ to Olympian, she placed fourth at the 1936 Berlin Games and went on to pick up gold medals in both a national and European level. Her winning streak came to an end when, on the return trip from 1938 European Athletic Championships, she was reported to the police as a “man dressed as a woman”. After being questioned by the police, she confessed: Ratjen had been born a man and, following criminal proceedings, was forced to both return medals and to retire from the sport. Dora became Heinrich and disappeared from public view; he died in 2008.
Amazingly, the Ratjen wasn’t the only story to emerge from the women’s high jump in Germany during the 1930s. The national champion going into the Berlin Games was Gretel Bergmann, having broken the world record in 1931. By 1933 she’d been kicked out of her athletics club by the Nazis for being Jewish and had no intentions to compete within the country again. A gold medal at the British Championships in 1934 meant that she was invited to the German training camp for the Summer Olympics, though ultimately she wasn’t selected – and this despite breaking the world record again just weeks before the opening ceremony.
Bergmann left Germany for good in 1937 and never returned. She continued to compete, becoming a US citizen in 1942. She didn’t discover Ratjen’s real gender until Time published a story in 1966, later commenting that she “never had any suspicions, not even once”. That story also suggested that Ratjen had been coerced against his will into competing at the Berlin Games as some kind of Aryan ‘secret weapon’, though historians have refuted such claims. Berlin 36 takes them at face (or maybe that should read narrative) value and embellishes them further. Bergmann was aware of the facts, according to this feature, and Ratjen used this to his favour – competing at the Olympics under false pretences is viewed, in the eyes of the filmmakers, as an act of anti-Nazi subversion.
This elastic approach to history is a curious one and, consequently, Berlin 36 is a curious film. It’s a true story that isn’t particularly true, a sports movie that recreates real events but then spins them in a fictitious manner, a biopic about a person who’s been partially invented by screenwriter Lothar Kurzawa. With regards to the latter, Ratjen nevertheless remains a somewhat unknowable figure. Rechristened Marie Ketteler, presumably to escape issues of fidelity, he is never really probed in a particularly meaningful way. Hints at a childhood in which his mother wished for him to be a girl are shown, but otherwise details are incredibly sketchy. Sebastian Urzendowsky (perhaps best-known to UK audiences for his performance in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love) has little to work with, alternately coming across as a bit a shy and/or a bit feral.
Conversely, Karoline Herfurth (most recently seen holding her own in Brian De Palma’s Passion) has a much more rounded part. Bergmann, who has since endorsed the film, was the subject of an HBO documentary before she became the subject of Berlin 36. Screened in 2004, Hitler’s Pawn spent an hour in the company of the athlete, during which time she recounts the entire affair. That same year she had also published her memoirs in both German and English, while Herfurth and the filmmakers were also able to draw on footage of her sporting performances (including her winning jump at the 1934 British Championships) so as to perfect the physical side. Ratjen, on the other hand, has only a few reels of film to his name.
As such, it’s best to view Berlin 36 as a Bergmann biopic that’s undergone some exaggeration. In this respect it’s a solidly competent affair with a strong central performance. Director Kaspar Heidelbach, here making his feature debut following a number of years working in television, provides a suitably cinematic sheen – plenty of swooping crane shots and faithful period recreation – although the CG-heavy Olympic finale reveals some budgetary limitations. Nevertheless, the film hits the requisite sports movie beats and should introduce viewers to some of the extraordinary stories behind the Berlin Games. Only let’s just hope that they follow it up with an investigation into the real events as the facts haven’t always made it to the screen.
Berlin 36 comes to UK DVD courtesy of Peccadillo Pictures. The film is presented in a ratio of 1.78:1 (anamorphically enhanced) and comes with a choice of DD5.1 and DD2.0 soundtracks. The overall presentation is fine: damage is non-existent, detail is fine and colours and contrast just as you would expect them. Be warned, however, that the English subtitles are burnt into the image. The extras, on the other hand, do offer optional subs and consist of EPK-level interviews with the two leads, the director, the producer and Bergmann herself. The standard of enquiry is somewhat fluffy, with questions as to the film’s fidelity being sketched over with minimal fuss. With that said, it is good to see some contribution from Bergmann, however brief. The disc also contains the theatrical trailer plus promos for other Peccadillo releases.