Hidden Tales from 1936

Mention the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and the first thing that comes to mind is Jesse Owens’ Gold medal win, and then perhaps Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 documentary of the big sports competition that Hitler used to propagandize Nazism as a great nationalist movement under the fancy banner of the Third Reich.

Mounting a global sports event within the walls of a racist state was only possible if the state pretended to be inclusive, and two cases were recently dramatized in a pair of 2009 productions.

The most widely-known – and making festival rounds in North America right now – is Berlin 36, a docu-drama of champion high jump athlete Gretel Bergmann, who was living in Britain when the German government called and asked her to represent the country at the upcoming Olympics.

Problem #1: she was Jewish.

Problem #2: the Nazis needed her to participate just long enough for the Olympic bigwigs of the IOC to grant the games a Go, after which Bergmann could be dumped, and the national team could be headlined with Aryanesque athletes.

Premiering in Canada last night as part of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Berlin 36 was also recently released on DVD in Germany (Warner Bros.), and in addition to a film review, I’ve also included details of the Region 2 DVD’s extras.

A related film is Semyon Pinkhasov’s documentary What If? The Helen Mayer Story, which chronicles the case of fencing mistress Helen Mayer who won a Gold medal at the 1928 Olympics, and was an ideal candidate for the German team in ’36 with one issue: she was half-Jewish.

As Pinkhasov covers in his detailed film, allowances were made that eventually permitted the athlete to represent her country, but the film’s title begs a question whose answer can only be hypothetical: Had Mayer refused, would the Olympics have occurred, or would her refutation of participating for the Nazis have been a major humiliation on the international stage?

The Olympics were a grandiose opportunity for Hitler to unfurl his propaganda plans, but it was just one event within an overall scheme to reacquire /steal land and kill a few million people, and one doubts a low medal haul at the Olympics, had the event occurred in spite of Mayer’s refusal to participate, would’ve mattered in the long run.

The big goal in the coming years was World Domination, and a sports event seemed inconsequential when the Nazis would in fact invade Poland, France, and chunks of north Africa, to name a few sovereign states.

Pinkhasov’s question, however, also extends to Mayer’s motivations for agreeing to participate, to the point that, upon winning a Silver medal, she gave the Nazi salute. Was it to protect her family’s safety, or something else?

What If? is still doing the festival rounds (director Pinkhasov participated in a brief but helpful Q&A after the screening this past Wednesday), but hopefully the film will be available on home video, if not as a digital download, because it’s a story that also provokes a number of questions, and inevitably smart discussions beyond the Berlin Olympics.

That said, in addition to the above reviews, there’s also a prior review of Riefenstahl’s Olympia. The film was released in North America on DVD in a rather mediocre transfer from Pathfinder Films in 2006. The better edition from Criterion, released on laserdisc around 1996, has yet to appear on DVD, whereas the German Region 2 version is available on two dual layer DVDs, albeit with no English subtitles, and the German dub track.

Also related to the 1936 Olympics is the odd propaganda film Wunschkonzert (1940), about a couple whose meeting during the Berlin Olympics starts a friendship and romance, only to have it mucked up by WWII. The film actually includes some footage of Riefenstahl’s doc, and it’s an interesting take on a more blissful view of the Olympics, free from the cruelties of the Greta Bergmann saga, and the controversy of Helen Mayer who, unsurprisingly, had gone from celebrated national sports heroine to non-person.

I’ll have three more sets of reviews related to this year’s TJFF (which ends tonight) this week, spanning comic art, exiled German Jewish filmmakers in Hollywood, and a rarely seen documentary about the concentration camps supervised by Alfred Hitchcock.

Coming next, however, are some thoughts on TCM’s own Classic Film Festival, followed by some reviews of those rarities available in Region 2 land.

Mark R. Hasan, Editor


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