Rabbit is rich in metaphor

From the end of World War II until the summer of 1961, more than 3.5 million East Germans—20 percent of the population—fled the Soviet bloc nation. Their main escape path led from East to West Berlin. Something had to be done, the Soviets agreed, and that something began as a wire fence encircling West Berlin.

From fence to reinforced fence to concrete, the wall grew by 1980 to two massive fortifications, with a swath of barren land (aka the Death Zone) in between. Walls, armed guards, dogs, watchtowers, beds of nails, and other deterrents worked. Between 1961 and November 9, 1989, when the wall fell, only 5,000 East Germans attempted to escape.

That’s the human perspective. But a 2009 German-Polish documentary film, shown at International House last week as part of a three-day series marking the 20th anniversary of events that led to the end of the cold war, takes a rabbit’s-eye view.

Rabbit à la Berlin (in Polish, Królik po berlinsku) begins in the burned-out aftermath of post-war Berlin, as rabbits flock to makeshift gardens sown near Potsdamer Platz. Times are hard, but the gardens and the rabbits take it day by day. Years go by, and the rabbits wake one morning to the fence, to the wall, and then to the realization that they can't get out. But the basic necessities of life remain, and so the rabbits multiply. They believe the guards are there to protect them, and they are content. Until some aren’t. When they begin to burrow their way out, they become the hunted.

Through newsreel clips, we watch as the rabbits watch builders, guards, escapees, statesmen, tourists—and the wall itself—come and go. The archival and contemporary footage of the rabbits is equally revealing. But if Rabbit à la Berlin (up for a 2010 Academy Award nomination in the documentary short-subject category) follows the conventions of a nature documentary, its subject is human nature.

On the surface, the commentary is serene; underneath, hardly safe: “…for rabbits, this was almost like a zoo...” or “there would be individuals that would go against the herd….” The rabbits are not the only species still struggling to adjust to life after the wall.

Mary Ruth Yoe

"With Immediate Effect" The Events of 1989 Revisited
A film and discussion series reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the transitions in Central and Eastern Europe that marked the end of the cold war and altered the balance of power in the world. The Center for International Studies series was cosponsored by the International House Global Voices Program, Doc Films, and the Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies.

November 9, 2009