With the endless proliferation of movies dealing with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, filmmakers looking to tackle the Shoah have had to roam further and further afield for material. Thus, rather than set their films amid the horrors of death camps, directors have taken to working at the periphery of the Nazi occupation (Winter in Wartime), digging up little known incidents from WWII (as in Sarah’s Key), or tracing the legacy of past genocide on present-day lives (Sarah’s Key, The Reader, countless others).
Generally, these efforts at opening up new areas of historical inquiry haven’t inspired reflection or outrage so much as tasteful tearjerking. Such is certainly the case with Kaspar Heidelbach’s Berlin 36, which may hold the dubious distinction of being the most tasteful movie to deal with Nazi Germany yet. Excepting a momentary late-film lapse into eye-rolling double-exposure tomfoolery, the film is as aesthetically bland as a film could conceivably be, the perfunctory camerawork imbuing the proceedings with an ugly, indistinctive gloss.
But in Heidelbach’s project, aesthetics mustn’t get in the way of the easy outrage the film aims to trigger. Since the movie is set in the pre-war days, during the lead-up to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, this outrage mostly consists of such shocking bits of revelation as the fact that the Nazis—and even ordinary German citizens!—were such meanies to the Jews.
Centering on the unlikely friendship of champion female high jumper Gretel Bergmann (Karoline Herfurth) and her ambiguously gendered chief rival Marie Ketteler (Sebastian Urendowsky), the film unfolds largely in the training camp for German Olympic track star hopefuls. Gretel being Jewish, she can’t be allowed to make the team, but because the Americans are threatening to boycott the games if Jewish athletes aren’t allowed on the German squad, Gretel must at least be given the chance to compete for a spot. Since she’s clearly her nation’s best high jumper, the German sporting officials attempt to do everything they can to thwart her chances, while bringing in the ringer Marie—who looks suspiciously like a man—to steal her spot.
The question of Marie’s gender identity is the only potential source of interest in a film that otherwise consists of the heroic Gretel brushing off both the cruel pranks of her fellow athletes and the sabotaging stratagems of her trainer. Introduced being shamed by her mother for not acting like a girl, Marie and her air of sexual mystery serve as chief sources of plot intrigue for the film as well as providing ironic commentary on the double standards of Nazi prejudice. As the head of German athletics explains to Marie before selecting her for tryouts, “normally I’d have to have you committed to a mental institute,” but whereas Gretel’s Jewishness is open, Marie’s gender-fucking is not, and so the one athlete is defeated while the other is promoted.
Any interest the film takes in Marie’s ambiguous masculinity ends quickly enough however, for that character’s backstory is soon provided and her sexuality, neatly explained away, is no longer investigated. Something of her anguish at being placed in an untenable situation remains, though, even as this torment resolves itself in an act of defiance whose narrative silliness is trumped only by the ineptitude of its cinematic depiction.