HBOs Hitlers Pawn, about Jewish high-jumper, obscures substance with style

Because of all the looting, pillaging and murdering, one forgets Adolf Hitler was an exquisite liar as well.

Case in point: Gretel Bergmann. The world-class Jewish high-jumper’s inclusion on the 1936 German Olympic squad was enough to hoodwink the Americans into participating in what has come to be remembered as Hitler’s Olympics.

But, as soon as the U.S. team’s ship left New York harbor, Bergmann was unceremoniously dropped from the German side and given a standing-room ticket to cap the insult.

Bergmann — now a sweet 90-year-old Queens grandma who goes by the name Margaret Lambert — is the subject of the HBO documentary “Hitler’s Pawn,” which airs at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, July 31, and 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 6.

And, the documentary looks a lot like every HBO documentary — expensive.

This is not the work of a couple of film students waving around hand-held cameras. Gorgeous black-and-white images of Bergmann staring soulfully into the lens fade out to reveal a young actress in period costume portraying the youthful long-jumper.

A tremendous amount of (terrifically expensive) stock footage and photo montages portray Nazis marching and sieg heil-ing and burning books, and the real Bergmann jumping and jumping and jumping.

Dozens of American and German experts — including Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center — and Bergmann’s athletic contemporaries chime in while a full orchestral score billows in the background and big-name star Natalie Portman narrates.

And, much like a bar mitzvah celebration featuring a light show and a chopped liver sculpture, it’s just too much. The combined elements work to overpower rather than illuminate Bergmann’s compelling story.

There are simply too many shots of little German kids laughing idyllically and running in lederhosen. There are too many swells of the melodramatic, half-“Fiddler on the Roof,” half-“Schindler’s List” score.

The highlight of this story is Bergmann herself. Lambert, incidentally, is her married name, and Margaret is a less-Teutonic name that helped her forget the past.

The remarkably spry, witty and lucid woman is a gem onscreen as she recalls the sordid tale of how Hitler — and anti-Semitic U.S. Olympic Committee head Avery Brundage — used her to lure the Americans to Berlin.

Credit “Hitler’s Pawn” for putting a spiked boot into Brundage’s Jew-hating posterior. The film points out that the longtime USOC head’s contracting firm landed the job to build the Nazis’ Washington, D.C., embassy largely because of his “supportive” position toward German sports. In Hier’s words, Brundage “loved the Nazis.”

While most people think of Jesse Owens when someone brings up the ’36 Olympics, the games were a triumph for Hitler, legitimating him in the eyes of the world. What’s more, with the nation on its best behavior for two weeks, news of anti-Semitic hysteria was seen as overblown.

By 1935, Bergmann had relocated to London, where she promptly won the English high-jumping title. Yet, on the day of her triumph, her father informed her that the Reich had summoned her back to Germany, and saying “no” carried veiled threats for her family.

With both the USOC and Amateur Athletic Union threatening an Olympic boycott over Hitler’s refusal to allow Jews onto the German team, the führer set up Bergmann and a handful of lesser Jewish athletes at a model training camp in the Black Forest. With the exception of the world-class high-jumper, most of the Jews were puzzled by the “invitation,” but they knew better than to ask questions.

Months before the Olympics, Bergmann’s name graced The New York Times as proof that the Nazis would play ball and allow Jews on the squad. But she never knew that.

The U.S. Olympic team’s ship set sail on July 15. A letter dated July 16 informed Bergmann that there was not a space for her on the team, and, based on her recent performances, she could not have possibly expected to represent Germany. Only weeks before, Bergmann had out-jumped the competition by eight inches and tied the German record at 1.6 meters (the height that would win the 1936 Olympics, by the way). Bergmann used family connections to leave Germany and immigrate to New York City. Her family, though stripped of all its wealth, also escaped Germany.

Bergmann is at her best when she describes her feelings off-the-cuff, noting that “100,000 spectators seeing a Jew win would have been heaven.” Fellow Jewish athletes are also wonderful, especially the old fellow who recalls that Bergmann “had talent and knew how to use it. She was damn good.”

Unfortunately, in “Hitler’s Pawn” Bergmann often recites obviously written dialogue which is nowhere near as compelling as her actual, spontaneous verbiage. At one point, she even states “I was Hitler’s pawn.” By the way, as she says this, the music swells and the young actress clears the high-jump bar in gorgeous black-and-white.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.