Semyon Pinkhasov’s documentary of one of Germany’s top female fencing champions was spawned by a seething question within the director’s probing mind: Why would an award-winning, half-Jewish athlete return to compete for the Nazi regime at the 1936 Olympics?
Gathering a solid body of interview subjects for his film – including Helene Mayer’s sister-in-law – Pinkhasov worms through several of the key conflicts in his subject’s life, and the film becomes less of an investigative doc about whether the refusal to participate would’ve shamed the Nazi regime and cancelled the famous Berlin Olympics, but rather a chronicle of Helen’s athletic rise growing up in an apolitical and apparently irreligious family environment.
That either helped Mayer rise to the top amid the era’s rampant anti-Semitism, or it created a blurred cultural identity; besides being German, Mayer was first and foremost an athlete, and according to the handful of subjects who knew her, religion, let alone being Jewish, had little to do with her career in sports.
In winning the Gold Medal at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, Mayer became a star in Germany to the extent people could – and did – buy statues of the blonde-haired goddess, but when Hitler came to power in 1935, Mayer’s prospects of work and social normalcy disintegrated.
As Jews were restricted from work, sport and the arts, and the Nuremberg Doctrine disallowed marriages and sexual relations between Aryans and anyone with Jewish ancestry, Mayer chose to stay in the U.S. after competing in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. She became a U.S. citizen in 1940, and taught fencing as well as German at Mills College in Oakland, California.
Missing her language and German culture, Mayer still wanted to represent her homeland at the upcoming Berlin Olympics. The Nazis, in turn, were getting international flack - even from the IOC – for not being inclusive, so after a year of negotiations to ‘save’ the Berlin Olympics, Mayer was allowed to participate after receiving a Statute of Aryan Honor due to her half-German DNA (basically an official allowance that granted half-Jews the right to work and perform as a paper mache German citizen), thus becoming the Nazis’ “token Jew,” and an illustration of ‘civil and religious tolerance’ in the Third Reich.
Mayer ultimately won a Silver Medal, and soon after won the World Championship in 1937, but that neither win allowed her to regain her German citizenship papers nor the fame and adoration in her homeland. She returned to the States, where she remained until 1952, going back to Germany to be with her family (her mother, younger sister, and younger brother all survived the war) and marry.
The are several ponderings that close Pinkhasov’s doc. Had Mayer represented the U.S. in 1936, would her stand have embarrassed the Nazis and foiled their phony image of a tolerant and inclusive nation? Was her decision based on concerns for her family’s safety, or a need to sate a potent ego?
Pinkhasov doesn’t overtly state it was her ego, it’s in the subtext, as well as the obviousness of Mayer’s hubris. He does seem to argue that it was her hunger to achieve may also have been influenced by the Nazis’ own philosophical ideals of physical beauty and immaculate Aryan qualities.
Mayer was a prima athlete; although her performance and win wasn’t featured in Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary, Olympia (1938), the few seconds of archival stills and film footage in What If? reveal a striking, dynamic figure in motion. She was celebrated as a physical ideal within her sport, but even without the politics and the iconic Aryan warrior-goddess persona, she was a recognized artist in her field, and her young death at 42 from breast cancer is indeed tragic.
A related historical story of the Nazis’ efforts to appease the IOC was also dramatized in the 2009 film Berlin 36, in which a Jewish high jump athlete was allowed to train but ultimately dumped once the Berlin Olympics were a full go.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan