It took Bartosz Konopka and Piotr Rosołowski four years to make Rabbit à la Berlin after their success in 2004 with Goat Walker / Ballada o kozie. The film is the result of many months of rummaging through Polish and foreign archives, examining thousands of meters of newsreel and hundreds of photographs. Their effort has produced an extraordinary film which presents recent history from an unusual perspective - that of the rabbits living between the walls. And it was worth the effort when the film was nominated for the Academy Awards in 2010 as the only European film in the Short Documentary Category. The film still continues to make a splash - in December 2011, it enjoyed its official American premiere in New York and distribution nationwide through Icarus films.
The first shots and the voice of Krystyna Czubówna, the television narrator acclaimed for her rendering of educational film commentaries, suggest that this is a nature film about rabbits, the animals which live near human settlements. As the film progresses, however, the rabbits prove not quite so ordinary: these are rabbits who inhabited the no man's land between the two layers of the wall separating West Berlin from the territory of the German Democratic Republic for 28 years. The film adopts the rabbits' perspective, offering an unexpected metaphor of living in Central and Eastern Europe in the years 1945-1989.
The film tells the story of the rabbit version of the so-called homo sovieticus, meaning people whose minds were shaped by the communist system. In 1961 the rabbits were trapped in the strip of grass between the two walls that divided East and West Berlin. Through the narrative audience learns that the second wall was built to protect the rabbits from predators from the outside, soldiers were deployed to ensure that the rabbits were safe, and the grass was regularly replenished so that that they could maintain a standard of living which, however modest, satisfied their basic needs. Yet eventually, the well-fed and secure rabbits become apathetic and seem to crave the world beyond the wall as they attempt to burrow holes beneath the wall in order to escape. Needless to say, the soldiers don't appreciate such insubordination and begin shooting naughty rabbits who try to escape their safe haven. After all, the rabbits' safety was the primary concern from the outset.
When the wall comes down in 1989, the rabbits suddenly find themselves released from their green prison and one can see them scurrying uncertainly into the city streets of both East and West Berlin. Their confusion mirrors the confusion of the citizens of Berlin following the toppling of the wall, elated at the prospect of a new era, yet also wary of what that future might bring.
Geoffrey MacNab of The Guardian has described the film as:
An allegorical study of a totalitarian system. The rabbits are used as a device to burrow into recent east European social history. Just as the rabbits were expelled from their makeshift Eden when the Berlin wall came down, many in the Soviet bloc had to adjust to the strange new post-communist world.
Jeanette Catoulis reviewed the film in the December 7th, 2010 edition of the New York Times:
Teasing and shrewd, "Rabbit à la Berlin" is a floppy-eared fable about the uneasy trade-offs between liberty and security. Fondly remembered anecdotes from citizens and former guards alternate with mottled black-and-white photographs and archival film (some of it fake, including bunny footage gleaned from YouTube). Employing wily close-ups of twitching whiskers and soaring sentry boxes, the director, Bartek Konopka — who wrote the story with his cinematographer, Piotr Rosolowski — captures the confusion of the rabbit's-eye view as circumstances and boundaries change, yoking humans and animals to similar fates. Just as the thousands of rabbits who hopped west after the dismantling of the wall would be decimated by dogs and rabbit-stew lovers, their human counterparts would face an uncertain, post-Communist future.
The film has been shown at several documentary film festivals, winning the prestigious events in Kraków (Grand Prix Złoty Lajkonik and Best Producer Award), Toronto (Hot Docs Best Mid-Length Documentary) and Warsaw (Planete Doc Review Best Mid-Length Documentary), and was nominated as one of the candidates for the Hollywood Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards.
Tadeusz Sobolewski points out the film's merits in the May 7, 2009 edition of Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza:
The films which come to grips with communism often miss out on the key information: that all this happened to a large extent owing to the consent of the people who tended to choose a sense of security over liberty. Poland's young directors (Konopka was born in 1972) have managed to do without the naïve superiority which is often demonstrated with regard to the times preceding the fall of the Wall and the people living there and accused of possessing the qualities of Homo sovieticus. The year 1989 endowed the rabbits with a freedom which they had indeed desired, digging a tunnel under the Wall, but it also took away their sense of security. They have dispersed and are now living in the yards and parks, being caught and killed every now and then. The old system of control has become a bad legend and has been replaced with a new, still unnamed, one.
In an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza in the same issue, Konopka explained:
There have been many films about the Berlin Wall, but none had our perspective. They said at the Swiss Nyon festival: you can identify the Polish style. There are several dominant directions in the documentary worldwide. What we have got is a particular attitude to history, the language of allusion, the metaphors, pars pro toto. We have surprised the German producers. They had wanted a sarcastic, humorous film for the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall. What they got was a more contemplative work. Aren't we all rabbits which get subjected to experiments, forced into certain situations and roles, manipulated by the corporations, politicians and media? The Berlin rabbits were perfect for demonstrating that. They symbolize the people who sought normalcy within the system as it was. Isn't it also a story about our parents who valued a sense of security and were unable to adapt to freedom, to transformation?
- Królik po berlińsku / Rabbit à la Berlin, Poland-Germany 2009. Directed by Bartek Konopka; written by Bartek Konopka and Piotr Rosołowski in association with Mateusz Romaszkan and Anna Wydra; plot consultation: Marcel Łoziński, Jacek Bławut, Maciej Drygas; narration by Michał Ogórek; read by Krystyna Czubówna; photography by Piotr Rosołowski, Thomas Bergmann, Tomasz Głowacki; music by Maciej Cieślak; edited by Mateusz Romaszkan; sound by Radosław Ochnio, Franciszek Kozłowski, Michał Bagiński, Teresa Bagińska. Produced by MS Films. Co-produced by ma.ja.de Filmproduktion (Germany), YLE (Finland), Lichtpunt (Belgium), VPRO (Holland), MDR (Germany), RBB (Germany), ARTE (Germany), TVP S.A. (Poland). Co-financed by the Polish Film Institute and Media Plus. Distribution: Fundacja Promocji Kina Film Polski. Duration: 52 min. Released on December 4, 2009. Re-released in the U.S. on December 7, 2011.
Author: Konrad J. Zarębski, November 2009. Updated by Agnieszka Le Nart, December 2011.