Black Power 1968. Munich massacre 1972. Mass boycott 1980. For a sporting event which fames itself on transcending politics, the Olympics have been littered with political statements and none more shocking and outrageous than Berlin 1936. This was the year of Jesse Owens singlehandedly steamrolling Hitler’s ‘Aryan Super Race’ ideals. However, the focus of Berlin ’36 lies far away from the podiums and on the training grounds leading up to the games themselves.
In 1936, Nazi Germany was gearing up to host the games in their capital city but came under pressure especially from the USA to include Jewish athletes against their ideals. Cue Jewish high-jump queen Gretel Bergmann, portrayed here by Karoline Herfurth (The Reader, Perfume).
Having been barred from her athletic club in 1933, Bergmann immigrated to London before triumphing in the 1934 British Championships where the film picks up. Despite never wanting to return to compete in Germany, Bergmann finds herself called back to avoid reprisals from Hitler’s regime for her loved ones.
The Nazi House of Sport bow to American pressure to allow Bergmann’s participation in training and potential selection and Bergmann finds herself determined to compete and trample their anti-Semitic ideals by triumphing on the largest stage.
A mysterious and shy rival arrives in the form of Marie Ketteler (Sebastian Urzendowsky – The Counterfeiters) – lacking in the honed finesse of Bergmann but capable of equally impressive high-jumping feats. The two seem set for Berlin with Bergmann’s hopes boosted by an astounding performance in the Wurttemberg Games despite a change in coaching personnel providing an extra obstacle for Bergmann to hurdle.
But just as Bergmann and Ketteler’s relationship thaws, a crucial secret is uncovered which shows the lengths to which the House of Sport are willing to go in order to uphold their agenda at “The greatest show on Earth”. With Bergmann’s career in the balance, the young protagonist has to decide between what she feels is right and the consequences of what has been revealed.
Although criticised for altering crucial facts of a shocking scandal from the 1936 games, Berlin ’36 succeeds in drawing a light to one of the most bizarre sporting stories – that of ‘Dora’ Ratjen – even if it has been largely accepted that the Nazis were unlikely to have undertaken the fraud and deception alleged here.
Herfurth shines as Bergmann, shifting seamlessly between the anger, disappointment and determination which accompanies her path which has more ups and downs than one of her stellar high jumps. Opposite her, Urzendowsky broods as the cripplingly shy Ketteler, scarred by a violent mother and traumatic upbringing.
Although the casting of Urzendowsky may appear to broadcast the plot twist on neon signs, one look at the real-life figure of Dora Ratjen makes Urzendowsky look like the master of disguise.
There are no particularly weak performances throughout Berlin ’36 with director Kaspar Heidelbach subtly negotiating the emotional twists and turns of the characters and avoiding being drawn in to a love story which lesser writers than Lothar Kurzawa would have been drawn towards. The decision to avoid this soppy subplot allows the events to take centre stage which is a story in itself that needs no romantic embellishment.
Notably Axel Prahl is stellar as the Reich’s original high-jump coach – Hans Waldmann. His integrity is tested and ultimately ensures he pays the price but the empathy Prahl exudes in his role as Waldmann is tangibly patriarchal, attempting to ensure the games remain “All types of sports, all nations.”
Berlin ’36 draws light to a shocking ‘stranger than fiction’ scandal, triumphantly portrayed by a strong cast who carry it across the finishing line. However, its sole drawback is the historical inaccuracies and should not be treated as the wholly true account of the Ratjen scandal of 1936.