Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Rabbit a la Berlin & Loss

Was it possible to thrive under Communism? Yes, for a short while, if you happened to be a rabbit in East Berlin. However, their salad days did not last forever. In a story too strange not to be true, a population of rabbits temporarily flourished in the green belt running down the center of the despised Berlin Wall. Part nature documentary and part parable, directors Bartek Konopka and Piotr Rosolowski offer a truly original perspective on the Communist experience through the eyes of those East German bunnies in Rabbit à la Berlin (trailer here), a 2009 Academy Award nominee for best documentary short, which opens tomorrow in New York as part of a double bill of short docs examining Twentieth Century German history.

During the immediate post-war years, a hearty band of rabbits survived by raiding the garden patches on Potsdamer Platz. Much to their supposed surprise, sheltering walls were suddenly erected around them in 1961. With a nice grassy run, plenty of shade, a precious little human contact the whiskered critters made like rabbits and multiplied. The East German guards even began adopting them to help pass the time.

However, for many West Berliners, especially artists, the rabbits’ ability to burrow beneath the walls made them symbols of something greater—coyote tricksters for their divided age. Then, as escape attempts became more frequent and daring, the rabbits’ peaceful lives were upturned. Their lush grass was destroyed so that fugitive footsteps would be easier to track in the dirt beneath. Formerly their protectors, the guards declared open season on the rabbits, like a red army of Elmer Fudds.

One of Rabbit’s many surprises is the extent and quality of archival film capturing Berlin rabbits in their former environment. Credible simply as a wild life film (even featuring the smoothly placid narration of Krystyna Czubówna, a well-known Polish voice-over artist for nature docs), it also has a slyly subversive sensibility, particularly when it incorporates news footage of the likes of Fidel Castro and Yassir Arafat come to gawk approvingly at the Wall. Wistful without being nostalgic, it is one of the more inventive and entertaining documentaries to reach theaters this year.

While the fate of the Berlin Wall rabbit warren is not widely known outside of Germany, the Holocaust and its implications are certainly well established terrain for documentarians. Yet, French-Israeli filmmaker Nurith Aviv finds fresh insights in Loss. Returning to her father’s ancestral home of Berlin, Aviv explores the cultural and scientific losses Germany imposed on itself through the Holocaust. While relatively conventional in her approach, Aviv superimposes interviews with four prominent Berliners and a vintage television appearance by Hannah Arrendt over the sights seen from S-Bahn train as it makes its way through the city. It makes the talking heads more visually dynamic and also gives viewers a good feeling for the still grim looking city.

Frankly, the fifty minute Rabbit was robbed at this year’s Oscars. Highly recommended, it is unquestionably the main event of Film Forum’s Berlin documentary double feature. That said, the thirty minute Loss is also thoughtful film worth seeing in tandem with Rabbit. Both screen together at New York’s Film Forum, starting tomorrow (12/8).