One of the strangest human-interest stories to come out of the Cold War is that of the rabbits trapped in the “death zone” between parallel layers of the Berlin Wall. Cunningly fashioning found footage into a rabbit’s-eye view of events, Polish helmer Bartek Konopka creates a chillingly apt political allegory in “Rabbit a la Berlin.” The fact that the actors in this morality play are bright-eyed, nose-twitching, cotton-tailed bunnies gives the history lesson a particularly adorable and, sometimes, horrific edge. Irresistible combination of cute woodland creatures and cutthroat geopolitics bowed Dec. 10 at Gotham’s Film Forum.
Konopka establishes a people/rabbits dynamic early on: Archival footage shows war-ravaged Berliners fencing off the cottontails’ usual hopping grounds to plant food, followed by reaction shots of the anxious, hungry bunnies. Thus, the narrow, grassy 120-kilometer strip within the Berlin Wall, protected from animal and human predators alike, represented something of a lagomorph paradise, the rabbits’ lack of freedom a small price to pay for their security.
Konopka assembles footage from multiple sources to reinforce his metaphorical presentation. A female voice expresses the rabbits’ ostensible viewpoint, the sardonic narration echoing East German propaganda that spins repression as security and defines an unnaturally sealed-off universe as a privileged, enemy-free zone.
When more venturesome thumpers managed to burrow to the other side of the Wall, however, East German authorities took their defection as a declaration of treason (and an invitation to tunnel after them). Soldiers spread poison over the strip, plugged up the burrows and declared open season: Grotesque shots of diseased rabbits or healthy ones picked off by rifle fire linger long in the mind, particularly after idyllic scenes of the creatures happily frolicking or lazily lounging in the grass.
The fall of the Wall sent the rabbits scurrying citywide, these erstwhile cute symbols of freedom now a pestilential public nuisance (one Berliner admits that after three weeks bagging bunnies, he’d had enough hasenpfeffer to last a lifetime). Only the younger rabbits and their offspring successfully adapted to competitive survival in the West. The similarities to Soviet-bloc humans who crossed over, only to find themselves completely disoriented, are inescapable.
Conceptually evoking both Richard Adams’ “Watership Down” and Orwell’s “Animal Farm” within its 50-minute running time, “Rabbit a la Berlin” (nominated for an Oscar earlier this year) has been paired by distrib Icarus with the half-hour German docu “Loss.”