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.