As related in Rabbit à la Berlin, a Western journalist writing during the Cold War famously noted that citizens trying to cross the Wall to freedom were shot by East German soldiers “like rabbits.” The irony is that the actual rabbit population that made their home in the no man’s land between Berlin’s communist and capitalist sectors was immune to bullets, the soldiers forbidden to waste ammo on the animals. That’s just one of many ironies in Bartek Konopka’s ingenious documentary, which draws on choice archival footage and reminiscences of both soldiers and civilians to tell the story of a divided Berlin through the eyes of the ever expanding rabbit population that lived in a 120 kilometer stretch of walled off pasture for several decades starting in 1961.
Employing a playfully distanced narration that restricts its access to surrounding events to the rabbits’ point of view, Konopka posits the critters as ironic counterparts to their East Berlin neighbors. Explaining that “the rabbits realized they had been shut in for their own good,” the narration echoes the official party line of the German Democratic Republic who claimed that the Wall was erected to protect its citizens from the baleful influence of fascist elements. But if the governmental rhetoric only masked the sense of imprisonment that goes with living in an oppressive surveillance state, the narrator’s claim really does seem to hold true for the rabbits that were similarly entrapped by the Wall. Protected from predators, given nearly unlimited pasture on which to graze, the leporids enjoyed an Edenic existence, at least until prohibitions against shooting the animals changed and, decades later, the Wall came tumbling down.
Konopka’s approach recalls a similar strategy employed by Martin Amis in his short novel Time’s Arrow: Like the British writer, Konopka aims to defamiliarize a well-known historical event through ironic distance and thus to render absurd the atrocities of the past. Amis’s narrator and protagonist, a Nazi doctor who watches his life replay in reverse while not understanding what he’s seeing, concludes that his destructive medical actions that resulted in Jewish deaths are actually restoring the victims to life. Similarly, by presenting Germany’s Cold War history through alien eyes, Konopka ironically reimagines the divisions of the Berlin Wall as a public good, in this case an animal shelter. From the viewpoint of the rabbits, the guards are there solely to protect them, not prevent refugees from crossing, while the ample fortifications exist strictly to keep out foxes and other predators.
All this is in good fun, but where Konopka proves most successful at suggesting the ultimate absurdity of totalitarian endeavor is in his constant juxtaposition of items of human construction and control—a roll of barbed wire dropped from a truck, the crisscross of the anti-tank fortifications at the center of the no man’s land—with close-ups of rabbits’ faces on which it’s easy enough to read a marked confusion. This sense of bafflement at man’s absurdity comes to a head in the bunnies’ utter perplexity at the tearing down of the Wall. As seen through the rabbits’ eyes, the idea of building a wall to confine people and control territory only to later consign that edifice to destruction begins to seem as ludicrous as it might to us if we weren’t so used to the idea of such projects.
When the Wall falls down, the rabbits begin to venture outside their pasture and quickly become a nuisance to the townspeople, many of whom take to hunting them. Konopka seems less confident about how to handle the critters after their dispersal, first suggesting an expansion of consciousness in the new possibilities of freedom and then giving off vague existentialist hints about the burden of that freedom and the longing for a return home. But whatever the problems facing the newly liberated (human) Berliners, one imagines that these burdens were nothing compared with the attendant possibilities, a state of affairs that makes the rabbit analogy difficult to further sustain and leads to a slight diminishment of the film’s focus. Still, in returning the bunnies at film’s end to a far less pleasurable confinement than the one they enjoyed for decades, giving us a final haunting image of a rabbit’s eye peeking out from a wooden trap, the filmmakers suggest the universal wretchedness that attends a deprivation of liberty, no matter if it’s perpetrated by game hunters or by a control-obsessed totalitarian government.