Racism is a virulent form of insanity. It makes people do stupid, self-defeating things. Consider the case of the Nazis and their preparation for the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin. Among the best athletes preparing to compete was Gretel Bergmann, probably the finest female high jumper in the world. Only one small problem for the German track-and-field team: she was Jewish. So after the Nazis contrived to have her rejoin the team, apparently a response to American threats to boycott the Games, they did everything in their power to drive her off the team.
This true story (Bergmann is played by Karoline Herfurth) is the subject of “Berlin 36,” the feature film debut of German TV veteran Kaspar Heidelbach, which opens here on Sept. 16. Given the heady mix of sports, corruption and history, there should be plenty of thrills. Unfortunately, Heidelbach’s television background seems to have dominated his aesthetic choices, and the result is stolid and dull.
From the film’s very start, Heidelbach indulges a taste for complicated lateral camera movement whose sole purpose seems to be proving that the camera operator has not been napping during the laborious set-up of the film’s main premises. At the same time, Heidelbach manages to withhold enough basic information to make the story unnecessarily cryptic, artificially pumping suspense into a story that doesn’t need the help.
At first glance, his narrative strategy of parallel storylines — the Nazi sports ministry’s juggling of competing political and athletic imperatives, Bergmann’s reluctant return to Germany to safeguard her family from Nazi violence, Marie Ketteler’s miserable home life and spirited solitary training regimen — seems an astute choice. However, he carries the development of the separate plotlines entirely too far into the film. (The casting of Sebastian Urzendowsky as Marie also torpedoes the film’s big plot twist, although Heidelbach’s relentless nudge-nudge hinting is a bigger problem.)
The overwhelming majority of sports movies just don’t work. The actors don’t look like athletes, don’t move like athletes, don’t carry themselves like athletes. The filmmakers, for all the research they may have behind them, don’t have a sense of the texture, the lived rhythms of the athletic life. With plot as its primary, if not sole, concern, “Berlin 36” falls into all of these pitfalls. The film has no texture to speak of. Everything is too clean, from the streets to the playing fields. Neither the principals, the bit players nor the extras look as if they have ever broken a sweat, let alone run a lap on a track. A great deal of time, energy and money has gone into period detail, but, as is so often the case in period films, what we see are the trappings of the period, not actually lived-in settings. Even granting that the Nazis treated the ’36 Games as an opportunity to stage-manage their capital city down to the tiniest detail, there is no reason for the entire film to look as false as it does. Whether unintentionally or not, Heidelbach has given us a Potemkin village of a movie, a lifeless simulacrum of drama rather than the thing itself.
There is a film to made from the loathsome internal politics of the International Olympic Committee, whether in the era “Berlin 36” depicts or our own. It would require either a master of political intrigue and of dramatizing the complexities of global corruption — say, Francesco Rosi — or a documentary maker of enormous patience and unlimited resources. Heidelbach, to his credit, doesn’t sugarcoat Avery Brundage’s ambiguous role in the Olympic machinations of the period, but his attitude toward Brundage is alarmingly inconsistent, depicting him alternately as a mean Machiavellian and a dopey tourist in over his head. The truth is rather more sinister, but it would take focus away from Heidelbach’s single-minded attention to Gretel Bergmann.
It is the real Bergmann who gives the film its one authentic moment, when she is interviewed at the end of the film. Seeing her as she is today, a sharp-witted retired athlete with powerful memories, you suddenly realize that someone should make a documentary about her story, not this weak-willed, well-intentioned parade float.
“Berlin 36” opens on Friday, Sept. 16 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.). For information go to www.quadcinema.com or call (212) 255-8800.