On August 13, 1961, nearly two decades after the end of WWII, barbed wire fences and guarded watchtowers began to be erected that would effectively cut off Soviet-backed Communist East Berlin from U.S. and allied-backed free West Berlin. This was the beginning of the construction of the infamous Berlin Wall. Over the course of many decades, the wall became a symbol of death and tyranny; while thousands were able to make their escape, perhaps as many as 200 lost their lives trying to cross the wall. By late 1989, however, in one of the most dramatic events of the last half of the Twentieth Century, the Berlin Wall fell, opening up the city of Berlin, the entire country of Germany, and indeed, eastern Europe for the first time in nearly half a century.
Not since early 1963 had the world’s imagination been captured by such an event. While the Berlin Wall was typically viewed by the world as a symbol of deceit and mistrust, for a few brief weeks in March of 1963, a spirit of cooperation between two suspicious governments allowed a small child to leave Communist East Germany and head to California where she would be reunited with her mother and the rest of her family. This unique and short-lived episode was then swept under the carpet, perhaps intentionally erased by both the East German and American governments, and simply forgotten. How does such an important and unique event simply get erased from the public consciousness? How do two governments who hate each other find a way to work together in an unprecedented spirit of cooperation only to choose to continue their rivalry? How do various government agencies collectively neglect to record this remarkable event as a part of their official histories? And what has happened to this small child, this five-year-old East German girl, who in a brief period of unparalleled cooperation between enemy states, saw her life change forever?
The story begins in East Berlin where Beate Kernke’s mother, unable or unwilling to care for her new baby, gives her child to her own parents and leaves East Germany for a brighter future in America. After two years living with her grandparents in Communist Germany, both the East and West German governments, along with the American government agree that Beate should be allowed to travel to California to be with her natural mother. Beate is picked up by American Red Cross field director Neil Clark and brought to his own home. She lives with Clark and his family, including his small children, for just under a week as papers are finalized and immunizations are given before traveling to meet her mother and new stepfather in San Francisco. While Beate only spends a few days with the Clark family–whose children don’t even speak the same language as Beate–the memory of that single week is indelibly stamped into the collective minds of all the children.
Fast-forward to 2010 and Beate is now a grandmother living in Alaska. She occasionally shows people her scrapbook and hints around at her remarkable story, but for Beate, her other life in Germany is ancient history, just a short chapter in what is otherwise a very American story. The Clark children, too, have grown up. They are busy with their lives as well, only occasionally dwelling on the past and wondering what has become of the little German girl who lived with them for a week over four decades ago. Field director Neil Clark, now passed on, encouraged his children to look up the little girl, but other than her first name and the knowledge that she was going to live in the San Francisco area, there were no leads to follow. No official records were ever drawn up in the German government, and even the American Red Cross makes no mention of little Beate in their official history. But for the work of these filmmakers, these two families may have passed on having never had the chance to meet and rekindle that long-ago friendship created in 1963.
Director Russell Sheaffer and producers Pulkit Datta and Jim Bittl have reconstructed a fascinating and touching story of this brief and forgotten event during the height of the Cold War. Exhaustively researched, they are able to find only a handful of news clippings as well as some personal letters saved by family members that document the story of Beate Kernke’s journey from Communism to freedom. One of the questions central to the theme of The Forgetting Game is why was this story dropped so quickly? At a time when East Germany was smarting from consistently bad press, why not use this story to create some good will? Was the U.S. so dead set against working with Communist governments that it would rather this story disappear so it could get on with the business of persecuting Communism? Tiny Beate Kernke, who was very briefly a global celebrity, was just as quickly forgotten again.
But more importantly, what became of the little girl from East Germany? How has her life been affected since she was "rescued" from the Communist regime and allowed to travel to America? The film is an exploration of not only how two governments, separated by conflicting ideologies, could put away their prejudices–however briefly–long enough to do the right thing for one family, but also how that event shaped these two families over the ensuing years.
The film documents Beate’s life, as she and her half-sister tell it, as well as the curiosity of the Clark children to find Beate after so many years. We learn of Beate’s struggles as well as her triumphs, culminating with a meeting between Beate and her family with the Clark family after nearly half a century apart.
At its core, this story is such a human story it can’t help but be touching. However, director Sheaffer has done an excellent job tracing events seemingly erased over many decades and following the lives of people who have gone in very different directions. The simple soundtrack is superb and serves to add even more emotion to an already powerful story. Sheaffer also uses Super 8 film clips, scratched and faded over the decades, as it were, as transitions to modern locations, which imbue the film with a deep sense of history. His use of time-lapse photography to depict snow falling and clouds passing across the sky symbolize the time that has passed not only since the event that changed these people forever, but also the amount of time Beate and the Clark children have spent apart, wondering about each others’ lives.
The Forgetting Game is a wonderfully touching and intimate account of a little-known and all-too-rare event that occurred during an infamous period of time in global history–the Cold War. On the surface, it documents this historical event and the lives of the people affected by the event. But underneath the surface, it explores important questions about international power struggles between governments, the role media plays in these events, and perhaps most importantly, the everyday people that are sometimes caught in the middle and the impact it has on their lives. The Forgetting Game is currently playing the international festival circuit. For more information, go to http://forgettinggame.com/the-film.