The Forgetting Game tells the story of Beate Kernke, a little girl who became the first person legally and peacefully transferred across the Berlin Wall to West Berlin. It was 1963, and Beate was living with her grandmother in East Germany. Her mother had left Beate in East Germany for a time, hoping to send for her at a later time. But then the Berlin Wall went up. After remarrying and moving to California, Beate’s mother sent for her, but Beate couldn’t get to the States without first crossing into West Berlin. With the help of the American Red Cross, Beate eventually made her way across the border to West Berlin, where she spent a few days with the family of Neil M. Clarke, the American Red Cross representative who helped her across the border. Days later, Beate was reunited with her mother and new stepfather in Burlingame, California. And then Beate’s story disappeared from the historical record. At this time her story is not even considered part of the American Red Cross’ corporate memory.
The director of The Forgetting Game, Russell Sheaffer, grew up hearing Beate’s story. Hers was a tale unlike any others he heard about the Berlin Wall–a tale of peaceful negotiations with a segment of Germany often portrayed as dark, joyless, and oppressive. As a student at NYU, Sheaffer began studying historiography—the narrativization of history–and viewed American propaganda films like The Wall, which spoke of the horror stories surrounding the Berlin Wall. He remembered Beate’s story, and began looking for tales of the Wall that presented a different side of Berlin. He felt a need to “complicate this black and white notion of history writing—not because terrible things didn’t happen, but because it seems dangerous to code players in a conflict situation as purely positive or negative forces.” Through his research Sheaffer found Beate and the remaining members of the Clarke family.
The result of Sheaffer’s research is a documentary that at once details an unusual event in Berlin’s history and provides a compelling meditation on the construction of personal memories and cultural histories alike. The Forgetting Game recounts Beate’s journey and subsequent life in the United States, but it also looks at the legacy of Beate’s journey–the impact it had on the Clarke children and their perception of a familial history. As Sheaffer and the film’s producers interviewed the key players of this unusual story, they became an integral part of the very story they were telling. The film will interest historians and documentary filmmakers alike, as it provides a thought-provoking consideration of the role of memory in the construction of the historical narrative and the impact of the documentary filmmaker on his subjects.
The Forgetting Game screened at the Chagrin Documentary Film Fest, where it was nominated for the Emerging Filmmaker Award, and had its international premiere at the Marbella International Film Festival. It was chosen as an Official Selection for New Filmmakers New York and will be screened as part of this festival on November 30, 2011, at The Anthology Film Archives at 6:00pm.
* Editor’s Note: I’ll be publishing another (more spoilery) post about aspects of this film in the future. There’s much to talk about, but I wanted to introduce The Forgetting Game in a way that wouldn’t ruin the experience of the film for first-time viewers.