The late Avery Brundage, the autocratic president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952-72, believed that sports and politics should be kept separate.
At least that was one argument that supporters used to defend his decision to resume the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, after a one-day hiatus, following the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. Many Jews, however, viewed Brundage’s verdict as worse than insensitive.
Although unmentioned at the time, Brundage had some history with Jewish athletes. As the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1936, Brundage had opposed a proposed American boycott of the Berlin Games, although everyone was aware of Adolf Hitler’s monstrous racial policies and his intent to use the Olympics to score propaganda points.
There’s more to the story, and it emerges in the historically based and glossily enthralling German drama “Berlin 36,” in which Brundage is a peripheral but important character.
The movie’s focus is German-Jewish high-jumper Gretel Bergmann, a strong-willed 20-year-old who, in another era, would have been feted and adored. But the introduction of anti-Jewish laws by the Nazi regime ruined her career prospects and her father sent her to England.
As the film opens, in 1934, Gretel has just won the British high jump championship and her father—under pressure from the Nazis— has come to bring her back to Germany to prepare for the 1936 Olympic Games.
Gretel (played by Karolie Herfurtht) is unapologetically ambitious and competitive, but she sees this “opportunity” for what it is. She refuses to participate in a scheme to garner glory for Germany, until the head of the Jewish sports club points out that a Jewish athlete winning a gold medal would put the lie to Hitler’s pro-Aryan ranting.
What Gretel may or may not know is that the U.S. had decided to boycott the Games if Germany’s Jewish athletes weren’t allowed to compete. USOC president Brundage, in his meetings with the Germans, lets his pro-Nazi sympathies be known and ultimately is portrayed as a collaborator in an elaborate charade.
The smooth, slippery Brundage (played by John Keogh) does have one good moment, though. Informed in a meeting with German officials that Gretel was forbidden entry to a sports club, he acknowledges ironically to an underling that the Jewess wouldn’t be allowed into his club in the States.
“Berlin 36” devotes most of its attention, though, to the difficulty of Gretel’s life in training camp. She’s a pariah, hazed by the high jumpers she’s competing against and made to feel invisible by the other athletes.
The wild card in all this is jumper Marie Ketteler, an unusually masculine farm girl with strength and ability but little technique. She’s the Nazis’ preference to make the team, and Gretel’s most imposing rival. Nonetheless, the outcasts gradually bond, even before Gretel learns Marie’s secret (which we’ve already figured out).
From an identification standpoint, Gretel is a welcome change from the passive and powerless Jews of countless Holocaust movies. Unfortunately, even this supremely talented, self-aware and self-confident young woman has little room to maneuver against the Nazis.
Consequently, at crucial junctures as the clock ticks down to the Olympic Games, Gretel is more of an observer than a protagonist. It’s inevitable, but it does diminish the film’s power.
“Berlin 36” is a crisp, well-made film that’s smart enough to play with the viewer’s natural inclination to instantly judge every character as a hero or villain.
Its major contribution, though, is reminding us that the Berlin Olympics should be remembered for more than Jesse Owens. Even if he did won four gold medals in one day.
Michael Fox is a freelance film critic.
“Berlin ‘36” will be the opening night film at the Mandell JCC Jewish Film Festival in Hartford on Saturday, March 26, 8:30 p.m. The film will be screened at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford and will be followed by an opening night reception. The Festival will run through April 5. For Festival information visit www.hjff.org.