Rabbit à la Berlin, a 2010 Oscar nominee, is a clever and illuminating short documentary about the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall. Rather than focusing on the experience of the postwar Germans, the story follows the improbable fortune of the wild rabbits that were trapped between the deadly barriers separating East and West Berlin. A cheekily deadpan narrator helps weave together archival and newsreel footage with black and white scenes of rabbits frolicking. The result is weirdly exhilarating, an absurdist nature film that is also a humorous and moving portrait of populations — human and animal — in the grip of history.
The film begins in the famished postwar period with Berlin’s citizens tilling the soil of the Potsdamer Platz to grow food. This bounty drew the rabbits from the wild, turning the city’s square into a strangely agrarian scene. But as political forces carved up the city, cages sprouted into razor wire, then into ‘panzersperren,’ the imposing iron tank blockades that soon lined the landscape. The strip of land that ran between the borders, the so-called Death Zone, was forbidden to the stricken citizens of Berlin, though in desperation some still made attempts to cross over. Vicious footage shows them snared on wire or picked off by armed guards. The rabbits, however, flourished in this paradisiacal no-man’s land. In the absence of predators, they feasted on the lush green grass and dug warrens under the blockades. This aberration of nature became the norm, and, lulled into complacency, the rabbits became ill-equipped to adapt to life outside the Wall. Of course, history marched on and their peaceful idyll did not last. Alternately coddled, hunted, and poisoned, the rabbits survived to see the fall of the Wall and return to the wilds of a free Berlin.
The unique nature and history of the Berlin Wall makes it an unwieldy story to tell, and the Polish filmmakers smartly narrow their focus to a single perspective. This allows the fate of the rabbits to allude to that of the various communities divided and controlled by the powers that redrew the fault lines of Berlin in the aftermath of World War II. Humorous and macabre images play under the seemingly neutral gaze of the narrator, who, with measured, often cheerful, tones, talks only of the rabbits, leaving the audience to actively fill in the rest. The early scenes of folks waving to each other across the divide, the menacing loudspeakers and gunshots, and the hard blacks and silvers of the early film stock are chilling but fascinating. As history bleeds into televised color, this gives way to both images of world leaders parading by to gaze at the void and the triumphant hammering and chiseling that eventually toppled the Wall. The film has a haunting fairy-tale quality — not of the sanitized storybook versions, but of the much darker Black Forest tradition. There is no happy ending here, only a wary step into a new future. Unlike whitewashed Munich, Berlin wears its scars with honesty and a sort of pride. Although mostly metaphorical now, the Wall is still very much a presence and a part of the city’s landscape. The rabbits too have endured, returned to their natural state, where they have learned to fear the robust German hunter once again.
In a wry twist on the double feature, Film Forum is showing Rabbit à la Berlin with Loss, Nurith Aviv’s short documentary from 2002. Quite different in style, Loss is more edited interview than film — it begins with Hannah Arendt and then turns to various German artists and intellectuals who candidly discuss the loss suffered by German culture when it expelled, rejected, and exterminated its Jewish artists, thinkers, and scientists. These figures are strangely imposed over a distracting and weakly metaphorical view out of a train window — as they talk, we see the gray German landscape moving behind them. Thankfully, the interviews were fascinating enough to overcome this and lay a rich and sincere groundwork for the ironic distance of Rabbit à la Berlin. Together, both films present the nuanced searching that today’s generations are making into Germany’s past.