With Rabbits à la Berlin the Polish filmmakers have managed to create something as unusual as an innocent yet challenging fable about the masses of the old East Germany: a collective forced to adapt to the uneasiness of a free world.

Melanie Sevcenko

Sevcenco currently lives in Berlin, where she works as a freelance writer, and for several documentary film initiatives.

Rabbits À La Berlin

Bartek Konopka

Germany, Poland, 2009.

It is an important lesson of history that a system of order intended to produce one result will often give birth to something entirely unexpected. So it was with the Berlin Wall, which was, in fact, two separate walls, one on the east and one on the west, with a 120 metre area of land in-between them. The enclosed patch was unintentionally converted into a kind of rabbit reserve since the walls encircled the lush green meadows of Potsdamer Platz and cut its rabbit population off from both escape and predators. But then one day the walls came down and the rabbits were suddenly freed from a restrictive system, albeit one to which they had become accustomed. Told in the style of a nature documentary, with a captivatingly dreamy tone and a tongue-in-cheek nod to the story’s allegorical significance, Rabbit à la Berlin provides a fascinating history lesson told through the eyes of animals.

This is the first time that cute fluffy bunnies have been used as a reference to East Germans, or by-default-communists, in a blatant metaphor of the days behind the Iron Curtain. And it works with both cunning and charm. Rabbits à la Berlin (original title, Mauerhase, literal translation “Wall Bunny”) was conceived and written by Polish director Bartek Konopka and cameraman Piotr Rosolowski. The pictorial documentary traces the last 50 years of Eastern European history, from the end of WWII, to the transition into communism, and the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall.

When one cannot in uence the world, one begins to grow apathetic…even if the one is a rabbit.

 

The narrative tactics are simple but rich in texture and tone, mixing an observational nature documentary style with a plot more at home in a suspense thriller. With a monotonous female narration, the story is told with emotional distance. Thus the film’s content is somehow simplied, almost patronizing the severity of history itself.

What surfaces is a cinematic style reminiscent of a story book for children. And it is brilliant. When the actual information is too heavy to digest for a naïve child, the author must resort to wrapping it in a cozy metaphor where the parts of human beings who are deprived of rights and resources are played by frolicking rabbits in search of fresh grass.

With a beautiful mixture of archive material, sonic collages, and newly shot footage, Rabbits à la Berlin spans the sorrowful history of socialism in just 39 minutes. The filmmakers succeed by using one rampant species – generic rabbits with brown fur, black saucer eyes, and wet sniffing little noses – to symbolise the innocent mass of identical, speechless protagonists, in other words: the nameless, faceless victims of communism.

Luckily, the metaphor is not just a clever tool. Rabbits à la Berlin is the true untold story of the wild rabbits that inhabited the space in-between the Berlin Walls, or rather the “Death Zone,” where these innocent creatures found themselves the prisoners of a divided country.

Beginning with the stark conditions of post-WWII Berlin, the film opens on a small community of rabbits that inhabit a modest stretch of meadow in Potsdamer Platz. Before long, they find themselves cut o from their green grass and vegetation by a meager fencing structure. When average Berlin citizens start behaving “uncharacteristically” (or, as seen from the footage, desperate and riotous), the rabbits sense the encroaching danger and head underground to their burrows. Resurfacing some time later in their old stomping ground, the rabbits experience something that no other species has encountered before in nature – a complete severance from the Other. The rabbits are trapped on a strip of land between a wall and a security fence that encircles all of West Berlin.

And this is where the false glory begins. These rabbits must dwell in a consistent, isolated confine where food and grass is ample. It is a rather repetitive diet of course, but at least it’s suffcient and nutritious. Most importantly, there are no predators, but rather formal guards and a wall that protects them from the enemy (or the allegorical threat of foxes). The rabbits feel sympathetic towards the guards and prosper in a peaceful coexistence – after all, the guards are fencing in the rabbits “for their own good” or so they have been told. The glaring metaphor starts to burn, but tastefully so.

Interviews with former “wall guards” allow for a break in the story. They speak of their mutually respectful relationship with the rabbits which were considered harmless creatures and obsolete targets. Over time, some 1000 rabbits populated the 120 metres wide zone that was the stagnate habitat of the “Death Zone.” The rabbits possessed everything they desired, which naturally lead to passivity towards the unchanging and unchallenging surroundings. When one cannot influence the world, one begins to grow apathetic … even if one is a rabbit.

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The documentary addresses history through the 28 years of the wall, where characters from both sides of the political scene (John F. Kennedy, Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro) are portrayed as invited guests of the rabbits, with GDR leader Erich Honecker crowned as their greatest ambassador – a lover of animals who raised the wall higher and sealed its precarious cracks. It all sounds a bit silly, but in the world Konopka and his cameraman Rosolowski have created, the tension mounts. Security is tightened and grass (or food rations) becomes sparse. Eventually the rabbits begin to tunnel under the wall, as curiosity is far more exciting than fear. Their daring excursions lead the once protective guards to poison the grass and shoot the masses dead, as if they were fugitives.

When the wall eventually falls the rabbits bound into freedom. They are handed a gift of fruitful, unexplored territory where not all people are soldiers and grass is not the only taste and smell. Their explosive population in the new world is, however, unexpected and unwelcome, with tabloids shouting headlines such as “Plague of Rabbits”. Consequently, the rabbits know what it feels like to be hunted from both sides. Though cast into freedom, what they want most is their old meadow in Potsdamer Platz – the simple, peaceful life secured by the state. Of course, now it is nothing but a construction site for the westernised “New Berlin.” Like every displaced species, the rabbit too must seek a new home and live in accordance with its nature, as prey that will inevitably be trapped.

With this sentiment, Konopka and Rosolowski reflect Eastern Europeans as a collective group, forced to adapt to the uneasiness of a free world, while simultaneously suffering the pang of not belonging and feeling the fear of possible revolving entrapment.

Rabbit à la Berlin encompasses both freedom and security in a harrowing, and sometimes downright cute, parable. It is an emotive and elaborative piece of work that can tackle the Berlin Wall metaphor only because of the cultural and geographical distance of the young Polish filmmakers. The rabbits depicted here are the parents and grandparents of Konopka and Rosolowski. As young boys at the end of socialism, the filmmakers were given a vantage point from which to construct an allegorical storybook about the Wall – without ever having been near it. The result is a film astutely crafted from the a fiction of history and the naivety of childhood memory.


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