The Berlin Olympics of 1936 were immortalised in two films by the innovative Leni Riefenstahl, the first was called Festival of the Nations and the second Festival of Beauty both released in 1938 and (if you ignore the political overtones) represents a tremendous aesthetic and technical cinematic achievement. Originally Adolf Hitler did not want to stage the Olympics because the Olympian ideals clashed with his National Socialist ideology and the thought that non-Aryan athletes would be competing against Aryan races repulsed the Nazis. With the German Olympic committee banning Jews from being part of the games the United States of America threatened to boycott them completely if there were no Jews in the German team. Realising that the games would be a failure if the Americans, and possible other nations did not take part they knew they would have to bite the bullet and do some thing to appease a nation whose race relations was not a great deal better than there own.
Based on a novel written by Gretel Bergmann and the 2004 HBO documentary Hitler’s Pawn – The Margaret Lambert Story Berlin 36 (2009) is the story of how the Nazis kept the USA on side by forcing a young German Jewess Gretel Bergmann to return from Britain where she had become the current UK female high jump champion. Although she had no wish to return to Germany she was given no choice because of the threats to her family, who were still living there. After she returned home it was made pretty obvious that the Nazis had no intention of letting a medal be presented by Hitler to a Jew! To this end they introduced an unknown high jumper into the team, but Marie Ketteler had her own secrets which if widely known would of upset the Fuhrer as much as awarding a non-Aryan medal.
Director Kasper Heidelbach’s debut feature film tells a story of two outsiders who despite being put under enormous pressure by the German government and its people form a very close friendship during a somewhat stressful period in their lives. The director admitted that history had been dramatized and that real life incidents condensed to fit in with the cinematic formula and the 100-minute running time but he did interview Gretel Bergmann at great length, who incidentally approved the movie, which enabled him to get closer to the character. Heidelbach also admitted in the interview for the DVD extra’s that casting Bergmann was not a problem and that Karoline Herfurth the East Berlin born actress was immediately chosen for the part. But the complex role of Marie Ketteler was quite difficult, but after a lengthy audition period Sebastian Urzendowksy was cast in the role. It has to be admitted that the selection of the two main leads was inspirational with both actors able to express emotions and feeling without the use of dialogue. Computer generation was used for the Olympic stadium as the original complex was considered unstable but never the less some of the scenes were actually filmed there. The story of how two brave young people try to outwit their rulers is different from other movies that depict the Third Reich, but in its own rather unique way exposes the inhuman society that intentionally conspired against Gretel Bergmann.
The character Marie Ketteler, whose real name was Dora Ratjen, was forced to remain in the German ladies high jump team and compete at international level. In 1938 she became European Champion with a new world record of 1.7 metres. In 1939 on a trip home unkempt and drunk, she provoked the Gestapo and was arrested. In a closed session the court of Verden declared her to be a man. Surviving the war Ratjen died in 2008 in total reclusion. Gretel Bergmann emigrated to the USA in 1937 and became America’s high jump champion in 1937 and 1938. Bruno Lambert, her fiancé, followed in 1938 and they married in the September. Gretel’s family were also able to flee Germany in time to escape the Holocaust. Gretel and her husband still live in New York.