Tuesday, May 6, 2014
Vol. 4 No. 35 Film Documentary on Stella Walsh to Be Shown at Cannes Film Festival
Reporters at Der Spiegel challenged the historical basis for many of the events in the film, pointing to arrest records and medical examinations indicating German authorities did not learn Dora Ratjen was male until 1938.
Plot of "Berlin 36"
The athlete Gretel Bergmann wins the high jump championships in the United Kingdom. For the Nazi racial laws prevented her continuing her training in Germany, being a Jew, her father had sent her to England, where she could live more safely and continue her sporting career.
At the Berlin Olympics in 1936, the Americans and the IOC (International Olympic Committee) demand that Jewish athletes are not to be excluded from the event, especially the high jumper Gretel Bergmann of international fame, thus putting the Nazi Olympic Committee in great difficulty. A victory by a Jewish athlete would seriously humiliate the Nazi party. When her family in Germany is threatened, Gretel returns to Germany. She is included in the German Olympic high jump team, seemingly with the same rights as the other athletes in the training camp.
Hans Waldmann, the coach of the team, is enthusiastic about the skills and discipline of Gretel and adopts a policy of impartiality based solely on sportsmanship. However, Waldmann is dismissed by Nazi party officials and replaced as coach by Sigfrid Kulmbach, loyal to the party. Kulmbach attempts, instead, by every means to discourage the young athlete and undermine her self-esteem.
Her roommate and sole competitor in talent is Marie Ketteler. Marie, however, is really a man, by whom the Nazis want to attain the gold medal in high jump. Between Marie and Gretel, despite numerous threats from outside, a friendship forms.
Despite being the most promising athlete in high jump training, Gretel is suddenly excluded from competition under false pretences, only a few days before the Games. She is replaced by Marie, the second best athlete.
Marie, however, behaves in strange ways: she never takes a bath with her companions, shaves her legs several times a day and has a deep voice. Gretel, therefore, discovers her true identity. Meanwhile, Marie discovers that Gretel was excluded from the race under false pretenses. So Marie decides to deliberately lose the final and decisive leap. The dislodged bar spells the shattering of hope of victory in the German officials, who are dumbstruck. Marie gains only the fourth place. Marie and Gretel, the latter observing the contest as a spectator, exchange a secret happy smile, for their common opposition led to the defeat of the cruel Nazi ambitions and ideals.
Stella Walsh giving a 100-yard stare as she prepares for the 1932 Olympics gold. (Courtesy of Cleveland Public Library)
Rob Lucas, age 35, works by day as an editorial assistant at Cleveland's Gray & Company Publishing. In his other life he is a working filmmaker. A filmmaker who just made Cannes.
His short documentary about deceased Cleveland Olympic champion Stella Walsh was recently completed. He will be taking it to the Cannes Film Festival in a few weeks.
Walsh was a prominent track and field star in Cleveland. In 1932, running for her native Poland, she won an Olympic gold medal for the 100-meter dash in Los Angeles. She also won a silver for Poland in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Returning home to Cleveland she became a local sports celebrity and women's track coach.
In 1980 Walsh was shot and killed in an Uncle Bill's parking lot during a robbery that went wrong. During her autopsy it was discovered that Walsh had male genitalia. The media had a field day with the revelation and some women athletes thought she should be stripped of her medals. Lucas spoke with The Plain Dealer's Michael Heaton about his film.
Q. When did you first hear about Stella Walsh?
A. I first heard about Stella while working on two books published by Gray & Company.
Both Chuck Schodowski and Dan Coughlin told stories in their books about meeting Stella and gave a brief description of her gender controversy. At the time I couldn't believe that I had never heard the story before and started to conduct a little research. Once I found out that it was not only was it true, but that nobody had previously made a movie or written a book about her, I started shooting the documentary.Q. What did you hope to discover in your research for the film?
A. While conducting research I started to see a pattern of conflicting stories and sometimes — what appeared to be — outright lies. I was interested in finding out what her true story was and why it isn't very well known today. The more and more I learned about Stella, the more I became just as interested in her accomplishments as an athlete and an activist as I was in her gender.
Q. Wasn't she married briefly? How did that go down?
A. Stella was married in Las Vegas and then moved in with her husband in California. Their union only lasted a few months, but she ended up keeping his last name for nearly the rest of her life. The rumor at the time was that Stella got married so that she could try out for the U.S. Olympic team. Although she was an American citizen she could only run for the States if she was married to an American because she ran for Poland in 1932 and 1936. Just after she found out that she did not make the team she and her husband parted ways.
Q. Was there anyone unwilling to talk?
A. Unfortunately most of her remaining family members were not involved with this documentary. Stella was biologically unable to have children, but she has several surviving nieces and nephews. It took years to track some of them down, but I eventually spoke to two of them. They both wished me luck, but declined offers for on-camera interviews. I also spoke to the former president of the Women's U.S. Track Committee, who was very kind and answered many questions, but did not want to appear in the documentary.
Q. Seeing film footage of her, especially in later years she looks almost comically mannish. Had people been whispering about her for years?
A. There were always a lot of rumors about Stella. She appeared very masculine, she wore some outrageous wigs for several decades and, although she was briefly married to a man, appeared to spend most of her time with women. Some people joked that she might be a man, but many others assumed that she might be a lesbian. I believe that the reason WKYC was so intent on receiving a copy of her autopsy just after her death was to prove or disprove any pent-up theories about her gender.
Q. What was the budget for your film?
A. I didn't start out with a specific budget, I just started shooting. I fed my hard-working crew and paid for a little gas here and there, but the biggest chunk of this documentary's budget is by far the licensing fees for the archival footage. Those bills add up to well over $5,000 for just a few seconds.
Q. How did the Cannes invitation come about?
A. I submitted the movie to the Short Film Corner of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Your movie must meet the program's requirements and be approved by Cannes. I'm not sure how many movies are submitted, but roughly 2,000 shorts from 90 different countries will be available on screens throughout the Palais de Festival. Unfortunately it is nowhere near as prestigious as being an "Official Selection" to Cannes, but I do receive a festival pass, I am allowed to attend almost every event and, most importantly, have permission to promote and possibly sell my movie at the festival. I think that's pretty exciting, because unless you have accreditation through Cannes, the general public cannot attend the festival.
Q. Were there any morgue photos available?
A. I have not seen any of Stella's morgue photos (at least the coroner's office did not provide any images) but her autopsy is public information. The crime scene photos that appear in the documentary are from police records.
Q. Did she have female sex organs too?
A. According to the autopsy, Stella did not have any internal female reproductive organs. It does say that she had an opening below a small, underdeveloped scrotum. I believe — and have read in several sources — that when she was born she looked outwardly female, which is why her birth certificate says she was a girl and her parents raised her as one.
Q. Her parents obviously knew. Are they deceased?
A. If Stella were alive today she would be 103. Her dad died in 1972 and her mom in 1991. I'm fairly certain they would have known. A few of Stella's friends mentioned after her death that they knew about her gender issue and discussed it with her.
Q. What was the name of your first film?
A. My first movie was a short called "Montezuma's Revenge: A Slightly Soiled Love Story," which I made in 1997 and is about an unusually messy first date. My first feature was a comedy called "American Stories," from 2006, which is still very near and dear to my heart. It is a road trip movie that contains four short stories. I made a lot of friends and have many fond memories of making both of these films.
Q. Did you ever get distribution for it?
A. Unfortunately "American Stories" only showed at a few film festivals and at the Cleveland Cinematheque, but never found distribution. I have many copies on DVD in my basement, so if anyone would like one for free, please let me know!
Q. Do you work for the Akron Film Festival?
A. I am currently the Director of Communication and a Trustee for Akron Film+Pixel, which used to be the Akron Film Festival. Rather than just host an annual event, the organization has programs several times a month. In late 2013 we received a grant from the Knight Foundation and we are in the middle of building a brand new 50-seat cinema in downtown Akron, which will open this summer.
Q. Where and when will Stella Walsh be shown in Cleveland?
A. I will have a regional showing in June as a reward for my Kickstarter investors. After that I will likely have a small summer showing at an undetermined location, then hopefully at the Chagrin Falls Documentary Festival in the fall and the Cleveland International Film Festival in 2015.
Q. Do you have another project lined up?
A. I hope to one day expand this short into a feature-length documentary. So, I'm still very interested in speaking to people who are related to or knew Stella! The next project will probably not be a straight bio, but more of a nonfiction story about intersex athletes like Stella who are currently alive and active in athletics today. I have also started writing a feature-length screenplay about Stella, but I want to to focus on her whole life rather than on just the gender story.
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