Roz narrowly lost the gold in ’84 to the ravishing Katarina Witt of the German Democratic Republic. Katarina was a highly disciplined competitor who skated to win and did so with a confident smile on her face. She was also rather distant, a characteristic typical of most athletes from behind the Iron Curtain—and for good reason. Sports programs were run by the governments, and athletes were instructed not to fraternize in any way. The East Germans seemed to take their sports even more seriously than the Soviets, which may explain why Katarina was always shielded by government officials and her rigid coach, Jutta Müller, who protected her like a lioness. I remember at Calgary wanting to tell Katarina to look straight into the center camera in her final pose for the long program, but I couldn’t speak to her directly. I had to go through Müller, who all but blew me off. I doubt she passed on my request because Katarina looked at the judges. Gold medal won, but golden opportunity to make people around the world feel like she was looking directly at them—gone. Forever.
Four years later, after the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, the men’s gold medalist, Brian Boitano, invited Katarina to costar with him in a television special. Such an opportunity was unprecedented for a skater from the Eastern Bloc. Katarina was excited about the prospect, but getting permission from her government to perform in an American TV special presented a major hurdle. Katarina was given an informal OK by some commissar, but it had to be officially approved. Determined to appear in the program, Katarina asked Brian and me to call her at an appointed time and day. On a very hot Labor Day with the air conditioning in the office minimized for the holiday, I was already sweating as the ABC operator placed the call. First, she picked up Brian in San Francisco, then dialed the number in East Berlin. “Allo,” a male voice answered clear and strong. I assumed he was a Communist Party official. Feeling like a spy in a World War II movie, I asked to speak to Katarina Witt. Sure enough, she was there. I imagined her in a stark room, dimly lit by a single lightbulb dangling from the ceiling. Words went back and forth in both German and English. I could sense the official’s resistance, but Katarina, who had some clout due to her global superstardom, persisted. In the end, she was granted permission to do the project, with Brian and me as telephonic witnesses across the Atlantic.
“Canvas of Ice,” starring the two Calgary champions, was set to air in December. Before then, my crew and I headed to East Germany to shoot two numbers with Katarina. We flew into West Berlin, then headed to the Berlin Wall, that horizontal monolith that divided not only a city between East and West but the world. At Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous point of entry into East Berlin, amid guard towers, machine guns, and an abundance of barbed wire, I surrendered my passport to one of the GDR soldiers on duty. He looked at the document, then up at me. “You are twenty minutes late for your appointment with Katarina Witt at the Steigenberger Hotel!”
Just imagine flying into JFK and having a customs official tell you that you’re late for your meeting with Peggy Fleming at the Waldorf!
After our meeting, we headed over to Katarina’s training rink in Karl-Marx-Stadt, the heart of the celebrated East German figure-skating program. As Betty Davis would say, “What a dump!” The arena was as bland and gray as the Berlin Wall itself. To create some sort of atmosphere for the sultry, romantic number “Hands to Heaven,” we backlit shots to hide the arena walls, avoided wide shots, and limited framing to head-to-toes and close-ups.
Katarina defended her Olympic title in 1988 against another American challenger, Debi Thomas, in what was hyped as “The Battle of the Carmens” when the two chose the same Bizet composition for their long programs. The Berlin Wall came crumbling down the following year amid the euphoria of Glasnost, as did any remaining chilly walls around Katarina. She not only turned out to have a great sense of humor but freed herself in every sense of the word, best exemplified by her cover shoot and centerfold for Playboy magazine in 1998. When I later directed one of Katarina’s TV specials, I facetiously grumbled about not having seen the magazine. She promised to send one. Time passed, and I reminded her a few times when we crossed paths at events. Finally, in 2004 at the World Championships in Dortmond, Katarina approached me with a mischievous smile on her face and handed me a large, white envelope. I knew what was inside and conjured up all sorts of fantasies about what she may have written in an inscription.
“With my love for you and your wonderful wife, Kat.”