Raising hopes from its title that it only partly fulfills, “Berlin ’36” is a small-scale peek at a major historic event — the Olympic Games held in Nazi-controlled Germany — that’s been begging for epic treatment on the bigscreen. Based on the amazing but true tale of a German male athlete forced to secretly compete as a woman to overshadow a Jewish female teammate, the pic sports a strong lead cast but is diminished by TV-style helming and production qualities. Jewish and gay fests may bite, given the subject matter, but otherwise it’s tube fare. Locally, pic opened modestly Sept. 10.
Docu footage from the time showing preparations for the Games, plus news that the U.S. is threatening a boycott if Jewish athletes aren’t allowed to compete, kicks off the film in promising style. Meanwhile, the corridors of the sports ministry in Berlin are all abuzz as word comes down that champion high-jumper Gretel Bergmann (Karoline Herfurth), a Jew, mustn’t be allowed to qualify for the German team.
After mild “pressure” from controversial USOC prexy Avery Brundage (John Keogh), sports minister Hans von Tschamner und Osten (Thomas Thieme) and lackey Karl Ritter von Halt (Johann von Buelow) cook up a top-secret scheme to field another athlete, “Marie” Ketteler (Sebastian Urzendowsky), to beat Bergmann, thereby making it look as if the Nazis played fair by letting her try to qualify.
Early reels crosscut between Bergmann’s and Ketteler’s stories — the former persuaded by her father (August Zirner) to compete, if only to shame the Fuehrer, and the latter, who was raised as a girl by his domineering peasant mom (Marita Breuer), now blackmailed into the scheme by the Nazis.
When the two meet at the training camp run by Hans Waldmann (Axel Prahl, good), they begin a wary friendship starts that secretly turns into love on Ketteler’s side. Problematically, though, the aud is way ahead of the protag at key points of the film.
Herfurth, one of Germany’s most interesting young actresses (“A Year in Winter”), brings a determined strength to the role of Bergmann and is reasonably convincing as an athlete. Urzendowsky, though given relatively little dialogue, has a moody screen presence as the conflicted Ketteler.
Pic shows its budgetary limitations when larger-scale sequences are called for in the final stretch, and an ill-judged docu coda just doesn’t work in movie terms (helmer Kaspar Heidelbach has mostly worked in TV). Period look and duds are fine, but an early sequence set in London looks phony.