True story of female athlete rises to great heights

Karoline Herfurth stars in “Berlin 36” as Gretel Bergmann, a German Jewish woman high jumper.

by Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

“Berlin 36” is a visually gorgeous, moving drama based on the true story of a German Jewish woman high jumper and the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics.

High jumper Gretel Bergmann (Karoline Herfurth) was one of the world’s best women athletes after winning the British championship while living in London. Gretel’s parents had sent her to London so she could continue her sports career after the Nazis restrictions barred her from training and competing. Under pressure of a U.S. boycott of the Olympics if there are no Jewish athletes on German teams, the Nazis now want her back. However, if a Jewish athlete were to actually win, it would be a humiliation for the Nazis.

Gretel does not want to come back to compete for Nazi Germany but does, after her family, still living in Germany, is threatened. The Nazis send her to their Olympic training camp but launch a search for an Aryan to top her. Unfortunately for them, she is the best.

The Nazis find hope in a 17-year-old, fresh off an isolated farm, who despite little training. But the physical examine reveals a surprise about Marie Ketteler (Sebastian Urzendowsky). The Nazis decide to keep quiet on the gender issue and assign the boyish newcomer to a room with Gretel, although unlike the other women athletes, Marie has her own private bathroom.

At training camp, Gretel is treated badly by her teammates. It is quickly clear that Gretel and Marie are the team’s best, although only three of the four can go to the Olympics.

How this all turned out at the Olympics is well known but the film mostly focuses on the unlikely friendship that grows between Gretel and Marie, who find a common bond as outsiders.

The acting is very good, with Herfurth giving Gretel a mix of bewildered vulnerability and inner strength. Urzendowsky is excellent as well, imbuing Marie with a convincing, subtle femininity, even in shorts and tank top. The relationship between the two characters is warm and compelling, making the story’s climax all the more moving.

Careful attention to period detail and lovely photography give the film a remarkable visual beauty. The story has been somewhat fictionalized for dramatic effect but it’s still compelling. Its delicious irony of the lengths the Nazis had to go to best Gretel is true.

“Berlin 36” is a wonderful film in every way, an excellent, inspiring story with solid acting, polished direction and visual style.

‘Berlin 36′

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 15

Where: Landmark Plaza Frontenac

Running time: 1:43

More info: In Hebrew with English subtitles. Introduction by Karen Aroesty, Regional Director, Anti Defamation League.