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Wonderland Creates Sound Design For “Hitler’s Pawn”New HBO sports documentary on 1936 Berlin Olympics (July 12, 2004)
Wonderland Sound’s John Wiggins reunited with Black Canyon Productions and HBO Sports to create the sound design for the documentary “Hitler’s Pawn,” a very personal look at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, slated to air in July on HBO, just weeks before the start of the 2004 summer games in Athens.
“Hitler’s Pawn” is the story of young Jewish athlete Gretel Bergmann, a Gold Medal contender in the high jump, who was used as a pawn by Hitler in his strategy to secure American participation in the Olympics in the face of a possible boycott. The documentary skillfully combines archival footage of the era, interviews with the 89-year old Bergmann and her former teammates, and newly-shot vignettes depicting Bergmann’s life and times.
“I was four-fifths of the way through the documentary when I decided a piece was missing, and that piece was John Wiggins,” says multi-Emmy Award winning producer/director George Roy of Black Canyon Productions, the documentary and longform unit of Clear Channel Entertainment Television. “John and I have worked together for almost 20 years, and I knew this project was right for him. ‘Hitler’s Pawn’ is like a mini-movie, and we needed a sort of Foley score that would resonate in a subtle way.”
Wiggins has been sound designer and mixer on many of Roy’s productions including two episodes of his three-part HBO Sports baseball documentary, “When It Was A Game,” and “Fists of Freedom,” the story of the controversial 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
“George always looks for a way to up the ante of each of his documentaries, and ‘Hitler’s Pawn’ features segments performed by German athletes and actors which tell Gretel’s small, unknown story in the huge context of pre-Holocaust Germany,” Wiggins explains. “George needed a sound pass to accompany the beautiful new footage he shot depicting Gretel’s childhood, her athletic training, a stormy crossing of the English Channel and more. I had to build the sound for these segments as richly as I could.”
Wiggins painted a complex soundscape, spending 45 hours layering and editing 24 tracks of sound on Digidesign Pro Tools to craft very realistic-sounding scenes for the 58-minute program. “I had a lot of license to develop sounds for the dramatic sequences,” he explains. He tapped Wonderland Sound’s extensive sound-effects libraries, but “there were clearly scenes that needed custom sound effects so I recorded my wife and youngest son in our backyard for some of the sounds of Gretel’s childhood and her early attempts at high jumping as well as songbirds. I introduced the suggestion of a crow whenever someone talks about Hitler and a subtle bird chirp whenever someone mentions Gretel.”
Athletic since childhood, Bergmann was ranked fourth among German female high jumpers by the time she was 16. But in 1933 Nazi laws expelled Jews from popular sporting clubs and she, and countless other banished Jewish athletes, was relegated to competing on makeshift fields with substandard equipment. Jews no longer had a place in German sport, and Hitler’s propaganda machine saw the upcoming 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a way to show the world the beauty, strength and organization of the New Germany.
Bergmann was able to leave Germany to attend school in London where she became the 1934 British Amateur high jump champion. But as news of Germany’s treatment of its Jewish population reached the US, movements to boycott the Olympics began. The Nazis needed to demonstrate that they were not discriminating against Jewish athletes in the selection of the German Olympic team so Bergmann was summoned home. With her family under threat she returned to Germany to participate in pre-Olympic training camps.
As the boycott movement gained momentum in the US, Hitler announced that Bergmann had been added to the Olympic team. Her token selection was enough to sway decisionmakers to send an American team to Berlin. Bergmann was unaware of her selection, however, and she continued to compete, equaling the German female high jump record. Just two weeks before the start of the games and the day after the Americans set sail for Berlin, Bergmann received a letter from the Reich Sport Office stating she had not been chosen for the German Olympic team because of inconsistent performance. Germany had selected only two athletes to fill its three high jump slots. Only after fleeing to New York in 1937 did Bergmann learn what really happened, that she had been “Hitler’s Pawn.”
Roy shot the documentary’s interviews in HD and the dramatized scenes in 16mm. He intercut the footage with archival clips and many of Bergmann’s personal artifacts and photos. Natalie Portman provided the narration.
“John Wiggins was a vital part of ‘Hitler’s Pawn,’” says Roy. “John is so good at what he does because his work is seamless: His sound design just feels appropriate and would be conspicuous by its absence. He’s understated when he needs to be and accentuates things when they need to be emphasized. He’s a real artist.”
Brian Hyland, coordinating producer for sports documentaries at HBO Sports, agrees. Wiggins mixed “Do You Believe In Miracles?”, the Olympic ice hockey documentary Hyland produced which spawned the recent feature film, “Miracles.” “There definitely is an art to what John does,” Hyland says. “John is always strong and puts so much into his work. And, as a plus, he has a great personality and is a fun guy to work with.”
“Hitler’s Pawn” has original music by Brian Keane. HBO’s Jason Fox mixed the program.
About Wonderland Sound
Wonderland Sound, which offers sound design and audio post services, is a sister company of Wonderland Productions, a full-service Soho-based postproduction boutique which launched in 2001 and showcases a team of high-end editorial, music, post, graphics and audio talent.
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