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  • Berlin Olympics Movie Blends Fact, Fiction


    A scene from Berlin '36.
    (ATR) A movie inspired by the true story of a Jewish high jumper barred from competing for Germany in the 1936 Olympics is making the film festival rounds in the United States.

    Loosely based on the life of Gretel Bergmann, the movie depicts a Nazi plot to replace her with an Aryan youth who later is revealed to be a man.

    Kaspar Heidelbach, who directed Berlin '36, tells Around the Rings that the film cost $9.2 million to make.

    It premiered Sept. 10, 2009, as part of the culture program of the IAAF World Championships in Berlin and was released throughout Germany. Heidelbach says the film needs a distributor for greater exposure beyond film festivals.

    In the U.S., the movie was screened in October at the 45th Chicago International Film Festival and in January at the Palm Springs International Film Society and the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. It has also been shown in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Toronto and San Francisco.

    Filmmakers had the cooperation of Bergmann, who moved to the United States in 1937 and is now 95 years old and living in Queens, New York. She's now known as Margaret Lambert and told Heidelbach she would have traveled to support the film, but her husband is 99 and she doesn't want to leave him.

    The movie dramatizes situations that are "a lot different than what happened in reality," Lambert said in a filmed interview following the Atlanta screening. "I kept saying, 'You have to accept that. You can't watch somebody high jumping for an hour and a half.'"

    She added, "I think the movie was done very well."

    Authenticity is Expensive

    Producers had to obtain the consent of the International Olympic Committee to use film footage from the Berlin Games. "It was very difficult," Heidelbach says, "just to show the flags of the IOC. In the beginning they wanted an enormous amount of money for it, but we negotiated with them."

    The director didn't know the final figure. "I only spend the money," he says.

    Actors in the film were spliced into a clip of the German team marching into the stadium during the Opening Ceremony.

    Footage from Leni Riefenstahl's film Olympia also proved extremely expensive. Heidelbach said only Riefenstahl was allowed to take the close-up of Adolf Hitler he uses in the movie's Olympic sequence.

    Heidelbach filmed very little in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, which now has a partial roof and a blue track that matches the colors of the local soccer team. "Only the marathon door is the same," he says.

    The set design and costumes give the movie an authentic feel. Athletes and officials wear the correct badges with ribbons, while top dignitaries wear a golden chain necklace.

    A computer-generated effect shows a zeppelin, emblazoned with a swastika, flying over the stadium.

    The actors, including Karoline Herfurth, who plays Gretel, and Sebastian Urzendowsky, who plays her gender-bending rival, Marie Ketteler, learned to high jump from Klaus Beer, the silver medalist in the 1968 Olympic long jump. They trained four months, three times a week, to learn the old scissor-kick style.

    Actor John Keogh portrays Avery Brundage, the head of the American Olympic Committee (as the U.S. Olympic Commitee was then known). The film shows how Brundage’s anti-Semitic beliefs of that time allowed him to be an accomplice to the Nazi wishes to avoid a boycott in Berlin.

    "Hitler's Pawn"

    Heidelbach says he wanted to make the movie after seeing an HBO documentary about Bergmann called "Hitler's Pawn" in 2004. She was also featured in a New York Times front page story and wrote a book, "By Leaps and Bounds," published in 2004.

    "I thought it was a story to tell," Heidelbach says. "But main reason for me to tell this story is to show that it's possible for characters under pressure, and they're both under pressure by the Nazis, by their families, by the Jewish community, to develop a certain kind of friendship -- and this is what also counts nowadays."

    The film changes Marie's name because it did not get the "personality rights" from Dora Ratjen, who died n 2008. He was exposed in 1938 and spent the rest of his
    Director Kaspar Heidelbach in Atlanta where Berlin 36 was screened this month. (ATR)
    life as a man. Heidelbach says a private investigator discovered where Ratjen lived, but they never were able to speak to him Ratjen, whose only interview was in 1957.

    Marie actually looks more like photos of Stella Walsh (Stanislawa Walasiewicz), the 1932 Olympic champion from Poland and 1936 silver medalist in the 100 meters, than she does Ratjen. In 1980, while living in Cleveland, Ohio, Walsh was caught in the crossfire of an armed robbery. An autopsy found that she had some male sex characteristics.

    The movie says Marie had a crazy mother who had an infant daughter who died, so she made Marie dress as a girl. When they Nazis found out, they promised Marie could live as a man if she cooperated.

    According to German publication Der Spiegel in an article published last September, a previously unknown police file "It contains not the slightest shred of evidence of the alleged plot. In fact, the documents suggest the Nazis only discovered the true identity of their model athlete much later."

    The True Story

    This much is generally considered to be true: Bergmann had moved to England, where she won the British championship. Fearing reprisals against her family, she accepted an invitation to come home and train for the German Olympic team.

    The U.S. threatened to boycott the Berlin Olympics if Jewish athletes were not allowed to compete, and Bergmann's participation at the training camp was a symbol that all was right with the Reich.

    As soon as the American team ship left New York Harbor, Bergmann was dropped from the team by officials who cited "mediocre performance." Germany sent only two athletes instead of three, so Bergmann was not technically replaced by Ratjen, who finished fourth.

    Despite the plot to keep a Jew from a gold medal in the high jump, the Nazis were denied their goal. Heidelbach says "the Hungarian girl who won the gold medal (Ibolya Czak) was Jewish."

    Modern Repercussions

    In November, Germany's track and field association restored the national record of 5-feet-3 inches that had been stripped from Bergmann, calling the decision an "act of justice and a symbolic gesture" while saying it "can in no way make up" for the past. It also said Bergmann should be included in Germany's sports hall of fame.

    Lambert says she never talked much about her past. She says her bowling alley friends expressed surprise when they learned about her high jumping: "How come you never told us?" she said they asked.

    "Everybody had a story to tell and I guess I didn't think my story was so interesting," she says, "I thought I'd forget about it, but of course I never could."

    She became U.S. champion in the women's high jump in 1937 and 1938 and women's shot put in 1937 and retired when war broke out in 1939.

    "To tell the truth, I used to sit there and curse my head off when the Olympics were going on," Lambert told the New York Daily News. "Now I don't do that anymore. I've mellowed quite a bit."

    Going to the Olympics

    When she heard Berlin wanted to host Olympics in 2000, Lambert became angry and wrote the German Olympic Committee, the USOC and the IOC to say that "nobody ever apologized for what they did to me. And I didn't think that Berlin was ready to have the Olympics unless somebody came forward and did this."

    Walter Troeger did. The now-retired German IOC member and then NOC president invited her to attend some events in Germany. She refused, but accepted an invitation to be a guest of honor at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where she met many Germans.

    "My stupid head finally realized that sometimes you have to change your attitude about things and I did," Lambert said.

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    Written by Karen Rosen.

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