The Forgetting Game: Second Thoughts

Back in November I wrote a small post on The Forgetting Game, a documentary (produced and directed by colleagues from my days at NYU) about Beate Kernke, a little girl who became the first person legally and peacefully transferred across the Berlin Wall to West Berlin.  Since that first post I’ve still been ruminating over the film–returning to its themes in my brain and contemplating the issues it brought up concerning both the role of the documentary filmmaker in the lives of his subjects, and in the structure of documentary narrative itself.

As the film progresses we learn the story of Beate’s transport across the Berlin Wall–how she eventually made her way across the border to West Berlin, where she spent a few days with the family of Neil M. Clarke, an American Red Cross representative.  We learn that days later, Beate was reunited with her mother and new stepfather in Burlingame, California.  As the story unfolds we learn about Beate’s life after the move to the States, and discover (perhaps to our surprise) that the Clarkes and Kernkes lost touch after Beate’s move to the States.

Beate was so young at the time of the move that she remembers little, though she remembers enough to complicate the negative portrayal of East Berlin that we all know so well; it was not the gray, forbidding place of cultural memory, but a place where she played and visited with a loving grandmother.  Conversely, Pam and her siblings paint a more traditional picture of East Berlin has a place of violence and darkness; Pam looks upon the story of Beate’s transfer with an obvious sense of pride regarding its place in her familial and cultural histories.

Pam and Beate’s narratives don’t quite mesh, and that’s perhaps the most fascinating part of The Forgetting Game: it illustrates the perils of historiography–how the narrativization of history clouds the truth of the events, and how memory alters the past.  For example, we learn that the famous photograph of Beate and Mr. Clarke is a reenactment–a staged photograph for the papers.  We also discover that the Red Cross does not include this story in its corporate memory.  So for some (particularly the Clarkes), this historical moment has come to define their heritage, while it remains unacknowledged by others involved.

I was also intrigued by the interactions between the filmmakers and their subjects; as the film progresses, its creators become an integral part of the story they are telling.  Partway through the film we discover that the filmmakers will (and do) assist in a reunion between Beate and the Clarkes.  There are glimpses of the director (Russell Sheaffer) and producers (Jim Bittl and Pulkit Datta) within the film because the filmmakers felt an obligation to acknowledge their impact on the lives of their subjects.  Sheaffer told me there was “no way to avoid” becoming a part of their subjects lives, and that the quiet way they hoped to tell Beate’s story led to their naturally becoming “a catalyst for a meeting” between Beate and the Clarkes.  So Sheaffer and the producers both tell the story and become crucial players in its development.  When Beate decides she’d like to contact Pam, she uses the crews’ equipment to record a video message, which they then deliver on Beate’s behalf.  The video they deliver leads to a real-life reunion in the United States, and the crew is there to capture that as well.

Ultimately The Forgetting Game provides a compelling examination of what is lost and gained in the narrativization of both personal and historical memory.  It also illustrates the impact that the documentary filmmaker can have on his subjects, and brings up some important questions about the role of the filmmaker in the processes of filming and editing a documentary.

The Forgetting Game

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.