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.

Katharine Hepburn and the Perils of Historiography

The following post is a re-working of a paper written for a Masters class at New York University.  The original work was a historiographical analysis of The Philadelphia Story, the 1940 film directed by George Cukor, based on the play by Phillip Barry.  As I culled through publicity stills, newspaper articles, and internet forums for any mention of The Philadelphia Story I soon discovered that the history of the film is largely constructed around the personal narrative of its female star, Katharine Hepburn.  In particular, the film is situated historically as Hepburn’s comeback from a supposed string of box-office failures.  The rhetoric of her return to stardom is present in newspaper articles at the time of the film’s release, and continues in contemporary film histories, biographies, and DVD reviews. My research, however, found that this narrative arc has rather dubious beginnings, and ultimately, illustrates the inherent problems of historicization.

The historical arc begins in 1938, the year Hepburn is seen onscreen with Cary Grant in both Bringing Up Baby (dir. Howard Hawks) and Holiday (dir. George Cukor).  Though both films will eventually be considered classics–the former as an exemplar of screwball comedy, and the latter an Oscar-nominated romantic comedy–they are poorly received by both critics and audiences. This same year the Independent Film Journal and other trade papers publish a now infamous letter written by Harry Brandt on behalf of the National Theatre Distributors of America.  Brandt’s letter provides a list of actors and actresses he considers “box-office poison,” and Hepburn tops the list (which also included the likes of Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford.) Historians and biographers alike are quick to slice this juicy insult from Brandt’s letter and use it to structure Hepburn’s life story as a monomyth.  They do not provide context for this quote, however, and thus mislead readers.

In his letter Brandt actually praises the listed actors “whose dramatic ability is unquestioned but whose box-office draw is nil,” and criticizes instead the studios writing their paychecks. He implores: Wake up Hollywood producers! Practically all of the major studios are burdened with stars – whose public appeal is negligible – receiving tremendous salaries necessitated by contractual obligations.” The large salaries of stars like Hepburn, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford, the letter suggests, force studios “to put these box office deterrents in expensive pictures in the hope that some return on the investment might be had.”   Studios are paying large sums to sign stars to multiple-picture contracts; if a star’s film didn’t appeal to audiences it could mean a big financial hit for individual theater owners, whose high purchase prices help the studios recoup losses.  He likely finds the cost of studio films prohibitive, especially since films at this time often are sold to exhibitors in bundles; as an independent theater owner Brandt is paying top dollar for bundles that included films with expensive stars in “prestige” films that presumably bring less returns than a standard Western or comedy.

It’s hard to say what real effect–if any–Brandt’s letter has on the film business or the stars he criticized.  The rest of the year proves hard for Hepburn, who terminates her contract with RKO after they offer her a role in Mother Carey’s Chickens.  Hepburn trades acting in front of the camera for acting on the stage, joining forces with playwright Phillip Barry to star in his new play “The Philadelphia Story”.  The pair know each other from their work together on Hepburn’s hit Holiday.  She purchases the rights to “The Philadelphia Story”, reportedly to ensure her place in any potential film adaptations.  Despite the “box-office poison” label of the previous year, the promise of a Hepburn stage production is met rather enthusiastically by the press.  On March 28, 1939, “The Philadelphia Story” opens at the Shubert Theatre in New York City.  The play is so successful that it tours until Hepburn leaves to work on the film adaptation (reports suggest that Hepburn receives offers from studios within days of the play’s opening.)  She sells the rights to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with a guaranteed starring role, as well as her choice of director and costars.  For “box-office poison,” Hepburn is certainly receiving the star treatment.

The Philadelphia Story is immediately branded Hepburn’s comeback to screen stardom.  In fact, it is considered this even before the films’ successful theatrical run; while The Philadelphia Story is still in production a feature in The Christian Science Monitor suggests that Hepburn is “Back in Hollywood making [the play] into a picture, with a supporting cast which includes Cary Grant, James Stewart, and some others who are not ordinarily put into pictures thought likely to be ‘poison at the box office.'”  Another article–this one a full-page feature in Ed Sullivan’s “Chicago Daily Tribune” column, refers to her as “The Girl Who Proved Studios Wrong” before the film is even shot.

The Philadelphia Story is released on Christmas Day 1940.  It breaks box office records with successful runs throughout the United States, including a record six week run at Radio City Music Hall.  In fact, the screenings cease only because Radio City is “faced with a schedule of ten films awaiting exhibition.”  The Philadelphia Story is also a critical darling, with one reviewer calling Hepburn’s turn as Tracy Lord “her champion achievement.”  Costar James Stewart and screenwriter David Ogden Stewart go on to earn Academy Awards for their efforts, while Hepburn, costar Ruth Hussey, director Cukor, and producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz also receive nominations.

While reviews of Hepburn’s performance are largely positive, they are also rife with the rhetoric of previous failures, comebacks, and returns to glory. An article that appears in The Washington Post provides a stunning example: “Stigmatized only a few short months ago by a premature oracle of the celluloids as one of the stars who was ‘poison at the boxoffice,’ Miss Hepburn arises now in all her might to confound her critics.”  This article highlights one of the most interesting aspects of the comeback plot line–it implies an active wilfulness on the part of Hepburn to disprove Brandt’s statement.  Interviews with Hepburn indicate, however, that she doesn’t believe in Brandt’s assessment: “I truly believed that everybody still adored me, that it was nothing but bad material that had made me ‘box-office poison.'”  Fascinatingly, only six days after the release of the film, The New York Times announces that Mr. ‘Box-Office Poison’ Brandt himself has “issued a statement recanting the charge and paid tribute to her performance” in the film.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to say whether Brandt’s opinion truly mattered to audiences and critics of the time, or if it simply made for a good headline in the newspaper.  Regardless, the presence of the retraction in a reputable paper like The New York Times indicates that the term was still a part of the American media landscape almost two years after the original publication of Brandt’s letter.  Despite Brandt’s retraction, the infamous list remains a vital (if somewhat dubious) part of the Hepburn legend.  Contemporary reviews of The Philadelphia Story, film retrospectives, and Hepburn biographies alike continue to situate the “box-office poison” label as the hurdle for Hepburn-as-heroine to overcome, as if starring in a successful film is both a redemptive act and a purposeful attempt to “prove studios wrong.”

Unfortunately, today’s historians and biographers have followed the lead of Hepburn’s journalist contemporaries who stripped Brandt’s letter of its context and allowed (if not encouraged) the stigma of his list to become part of Hepburn’s legacy.  It is an indelible part of her story, while it is hardly mentioned in the biographies of the other stars listed.  For better or for worse, The Philadelphia Story will “always be remembered as Katharine Hepburn’s exclusive property–the story that brought her from ‘Box-Office Poison’ to her current status as one of the Foremost Stars of ALL-TIME.”