The personal is political in moving HBO documentary

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

A touching and surprisingly intimate sports documentary, "Hitler's Pawn" (9 p.m., HBO), recalls a little-known chapter in Olympic history. Gretel Bergmann may not be as well known as Jesse Owens, but she played an important if painful role in the 1936 Berlin games.

Born in 1914 in an idyllic rural town, Gretel hated school but loved athletics. By the time she entered her late teens she was among the top female high jumpers in Germany. But when Hitler's party came to power in January 1933, the Nazis' official policy of anti-Semitism drove Jewish athletes, including Bergmann, from popular athletic clubs.

Berlin had been chosen as the site of the 1936 games in the years before the Nazis. Some Olympic officials believed that Germany had since become an unsuitable host for the games, given the Nazi policy of racism and blatant efforts to turn the Olympics into a showcase for Hitler's "master race" theories. Many pressured the American team to boycott Hitler's games. Aware that such a development would doom his well-orchestrated spectacle, Hitler instructed Germany's team to recruit Jewish athletes to make a show of inclusion. Fearful that her family would be persecuted if she didn't cooperate, Bergmann reluctantly became a star of Germany's propaganda campaign.

Despite setting new personal records in the high jump, Bergmann was ultimately informed that she could not participate in the games. She got her notification on the very day that the American team set sail for Germany, when Hitler was certain there would be no boycott.

Told in a series of interviews with Bergmann, who looks remarkably spry at 90, "Pawn" includes many artful recreations and a tearful reunion between Bergmann and her German teammate Elfriede Kaun, the only Aryan track star who treated her with kindness. Both women recall one peculiar competitor, a "shy" girl who never showered with the rest. Years later, investigators revealed that "she" was really a man in disguise, planted by the Nazis who were eager for Olympic gold.

Tonight's other highlights

ยข ate night

Hilary Duff and Jonathan Ames appear on "Late Show with David Letterman" (10:35 p.m., CBS) ... Jay Leno hosts Halle Berry and Tony Shalhoub on "The Tonight Show" (10:35 p.m., NBC) ... Dave Osborne and Joe Nichols appear on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" (11:05 p.m., ABC).