The 1936 Berlin Olympiad is rightly remembered for the feats of Jesse Owens who so embarrassed Hitler that he walked out of the stadium. There was another lesser known story of racial prejudice and confused, indeed contrived gender, recorded in the 2010 film Berlin 36. I saw the film on Netflix last night.
It told the true story of Gretel Bergman, a champion high jumper whom the Nazis excluded from their running team as she was and still is Jewish. Her parents sent her to England where she won the British championships with a record jump of 1-55 metres. The Americans indicated that they would boycott the games if she was not included in the German team and sent over Avery Brundage to review the position with the Reich sports minister. Brundage was not at all sympathetic to the boycott. Ironically in another German city, Munich, in another games in 1972, it was the selfsame Brundage as IOC President that insisted the games restart with indecent haste after the terrorist atrocity resulting in the murder of 11 members of the Israeli team. He married a German Princess.
The Nazis are in a pickle. On one hand the last thing they want is a Jewish gold medallist on the other they assured the Americans she would be picked. So she is summoned back from Britain. The hunt is on to find a German high jumper who is better. They find one but the only problems if that “she” (Maria Ketterer) is a “he”. They also use dirty tricks to lower the esteem of Gretel, she has to eat on her own at the training camp, for example. In the film, but not in reality, she discovers Maria is a man. They form an unlikely friendship. At the German games at Wurtttemberg Bergmann beats the record but she is still not picked for the Olympiad. She spectates at the Berlin stadium to watch Maria get to the final but deliberately hit the bar to finish fourth.
Aged 101 Gretel Bergmann is still alive. She emigrated to New York in the late thirties and vowed never to return to Germany even after her record was restored. However when the Wurttemberg stadium was renamed after her her she did attend the ceremony. Maria was subsequently “denounced “as a man by a Nazi court.
I am not as well qualified as Neil Rosen to comment on the film’s quality but I will say that many such films suffer as the actors do not resemble athletes. Karoline Herfurth as Gretel Bergmann did appear authentic and gave a moving performance. The weakness was that Maria Ketterer did not seem like a woman, not even a drag queen, but a male impersonator. To find and cast a actor that could play a woman and high jump is almost impossible – it might even be beyond Eddie Redmayne’s considerable capabilities. I do know that Neil takes great exception to a film being presented as a true story when dramatic licence amounts to total falsehood. Here the real name of Maria Kettker was Dora, later Hermann, Ratjen and crucially her gender was not tumbled by anyone till after the Olympiad. There was an incident on the train which led to a physical examination and prosecution. Crucially Gretel Bergman herself denied that she ever saw him/her naked and or was aware that this was a man. So the notion that Maria/Dora was used to thwart Bergamnn is incorrect.
Nonetheless, it tells a story which should be told and all credit to Germany for the restoring her reputation and making this film.