Rabbit à la Berlin

Dir: Bartosz Konopka

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Icarus Films

51 Minutes

Take equal parts Watership Down and The Lives of Others, mix in a heaping spoonful of Werner Herzog and you’ve got a pretty good approximation of Bartosz Konopka’s Rabbit à la Berlin, recipient of an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Short in 2010. A curious blend of nonfiction and parable, the film recounts the history of the Cold War as told through the eyes of the thousands upon thousands of rabbits trapped between the two halves of the Berlin Wall from 1961 to its destruction in 1989. Taking a literally ground level approach to its subject, the film is an ironic, distant and yet ultimately passionate condemnation of a situation wherein human refuges attempting to pass from one side of the wall to the other are shot like rabbits, while the rabbits in between live out bucolic existences of ease and splendor. The approach Konopka takes is a fascinating one. By restricting his scope in such a narrow way, he is able to play up the absurdity of East German society by refracting it through the small furry prism of his protagonists’ minds. From the rabbit’s point of view, the walls are the limits of their world, the guards are there to keep them safe, and everything is as it should be in heaven and earth.

Which, of course, is what the German Democratic Republic would have had its citizens believe was the case for them as well. According to official state propaganda, the Wall was erected in order to protect the people of East Berlin from the insidious influence of capitalistic fascism attacking from the West. Better to stay in place, safe in their rabbit hutch. Konopka interviews an evolutionary biologist who theorizes that if the situation with the rabbits had gone on for much longer, with them being confined to such a small area with no external influences or predators, that over time a new species of rabbit may have emerged. The parallels are clear: human beings are not rabbits – they cannot live under conditions of total confinement and control. Over time they cease to be humans at all, evolving into other, perhaps lesser forms out of sheer need for survival.

The film mixes archival footage of the rabbits taken from both sides of the wall over the years with contemporary interviews of local residents, former guards and scientists. The guards were forbidden from killing the rabbits for many years and so they flourished, eventually completely overtaking the narrow space between the walls. Close-ups of the rabbits’ faces under ironic voice-over suggest the animals are reacting to the increasingly insane actions taken by the human beings on both sides. These noble, beautiful, holy creatures living out their absurd existences beneath our notice are passing judgment on us all.

Rabbit à la Berlin is ultimately more clever than profound. If, in the final accounting, Konopka has little new to contribute to our view of the human condition or of the obscenity of totalitarianism, he does find a unique and thought-provoking angle by which to view our eternal situation. Human or rabbit, man or animal, every one of God’s creatures desires freedom above all else. Trap us behind walls; slaughter us like vermin; some way or another, life will find a way to survive its own self-destructive stupidities.

by Shannon Gramas

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