As co-directed by Bartek Konopka and Piotr Rosolowski, the short subject Rabbit a la Berlin projects a remarkable degree of imaginative empathy. The picture is nominally a documentary, relaying the history of the rabbits that resided inside the Berlin Wall, but it extends its gaze beyond logistical facts to ponder what the rabbits perceived and may have experienced over the course of the Iron Curtain’s long and tumultuous existence. For this reason, the film’s closest predecessor may actually be the 1972 Richard Adams fantasy novel Watership Down and the 1978 animated feature it spawned.
Rosolowski and Konopka begin with a solid and fascinating historical chronicle that contains a number of dramatic twists and reversals. They tell how the animals, who initially sustained themselves by devouring private gardens on the Potsdamer Platz, wound up accidentally imprisoned between the two sides of the Berlin Wall, but therein found a nirvana that enabled them to feast on grass and breed and thrive without the traditional interference or fear of death from humans’ rifles (a policy was instituted, making it a criminal offense to fire on the animals). The rabbits became not merely a curiosity, but the pride and joy of the area, a local wonder for passersby and area residents to admire. In time, however, the rabbits multiplied exponentially and even began to burrow beneath the (foundation-less) wall, meaning that countless hares hit the streets of Berlin and prompted authorities to reverse the “no guns” policy. Later, when the Berlin Wall fell, the surviving rabbits slipped through the cracks, but couldn’t find their way back to the paradise they had abandoned, as authorities quickly upturned and paved over the grassy knoll.
It would have been close to impossible to tell this story in a documentary vein by splicing together actual period footage of the animals inside the wall. Realizing this, Konopka and Rosolowski intercut newly shot footage of rabbits (initially filmed in a patchy, grainy black-and-white to give it a period “look”) with archival images of the Berlin Wall and its guards. The directors cut these images together associatively, so that as various events transpire in the surrounding world (the wall’s construction, the erection of additional barricades, the guards’ decision to massacre the rabbits), we get dozens of close-ups of bunnies’ faces, seemingly reacting to the human pandemonium surrounding them with fear, confusion, sadness. Though purists may write this device off as sleight-of-hand, it feels seamlessly integrated into the surrounding material. It also delivers a surprising emotional impact; the various events that befall the rabbits do tug at our heartstrings thanks to the constant anthropomorphization by Konopka and Rosolowski. And the film attains additional credibility from archival photographs of the Berlin Wall that turn up from time to time onscreen, photographs where an occasional lone rabbit sits, barely noticeable, in the corner of the frame. In reflecting on the existence of the documentary, it’s easy to wonder if the discovery of these photographs alone didn’t inspire the film, per se.
The film feels most ingenious, however, on a conceptual level. Rosolowski and Konopka succeed at conveying something much broader, deeper, and more ambitious than the simple historical tale of a few thousand animals who happened to live inside of a wall: they give us a piece of our own past, shot at a distance and filtered through unknowing, innocent eyes. As such, the directors enable us to look at a critical period of human history from a radically new perspective.
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- Released: 2009
- Review: As co-directed by Bartek Konopka and Piotr Rosolowski, the short subject Rabbit a la Berlin projects a remarkable degree of imaginative empathy. The picture is nominally a documentary, relaying the history of the rabbits that resided inside the Berlin Wall… (more)