Saturday, October 19, 2013

Wolfschildren (Wolfskinder)

WOLFSCHILDREN (Wolfskinder)        B     
Germany  (90 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Rick Ostermann      Website

Unlike most war stories, this one actually takes place after the war is over, in 1946-47 when orphaned German children separated from their families attempted to make arduous journeys through Russian occupied territory across Poland into Lithuania in hopes that distant relatives or friends might take them in.  Written by the director, the story is inspired by true events occurring within his own family, where many who successfully traveled to Lithuania were secretly forced to work for farmers in exchange for food.  While it’s unfortunate the film comes on the heels of Cate Shortland’s Lore (2012), an exquisite film that probes more deeply into the question of the heavily stigmatized psychological shame of German defeat, it should also be pointed out that some 12 to 14 million German people living in German occupied territories during the war had to be transported back to Germany, becoming the largest transfer of any population in modern European history.  It was this group, mostly women and children, which were the most severely mistreated before they were ultimately transported back to Germany.  Thousands died in forced labor camps, millions died of hunger and deprivation, while as many as 2 million women and girls were raped by members of the Soviet Red Army, some as many as 60 or 70 times.  Ostermann’s film, on the other hand, bears some similarity to Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), told almost exclusively through a collective children’s point of view, having to make their way through a military occupation where they were continually forced to outrun and escape from uniformed men with rifles and guns, while also lingering in those quiet moments lying in the high grass, or next to a tranquil lake, where in contrast to terror and fear, the pastoral beauty evokes a transcendent harmony or peace.  

14-year old Hans (Levin Liam) and his 9-year old younger brother Fritz (Patrick Lorenczat) are forced to repeat their names in front of their mother moments before she dies of starvation, a reminder of who they are, insisting they don’t forget as she sends them on a harrowing journey to a Lithuanian farm where they once stayed.  Also she makes Hans promise to take care of his younger brother to insure they don’t get separated, where at night he reads out of geography book an original description of what appears to be the initial discovery of the Galapagos Islands, describing how different species of turtles can be traced back to specific islands, where this peaceful narration of natural harmony is interspersed between signs of death and deprivation.  Almost immediately, under attack from Red Army gunfire, the brothers get separated attempting to cross a river, where Hans ends up with a young girl his own age, the overly maternal Christel (Helena Phil), and two younger kids under her care.  While they flee to safety, Hans is tormented by losing his brother, but in no time that guilt is replaced by hunger, thirst, and exhaustion, where they’re forced to travel off road as much as possible, which slows down their pace to a near crawl.  When one of the younger kids gets bitten by a dog and needs medical care, they have no choice but to entrust him into the care of the local adults that do pass by on the road.  He’s soon replaced by another kid Paul (Til-Niklas Theinert) wearing no shoes, with Hans carrying him on his back for most of the duration, looking after him much as he would his own brother.  These small uprooted groups of wandering children were called wolf children.    

There is no sense of time on this journey, as months and even years may pass, but what’s eerie is how the accumulated numbers slowly diminish, where kids like Fritz often disappear without a trace, getting killed, sick, kidnapped by the army, or simply disappear mysteriously, where the group can’t linger behind and figure it out, but must push ahead.  One other observation is how kindly adults help these kids out, though some may extract a form of payment in return, such as taking a child’s doll away from them in exchange for food or safety.  But the grim reality is a nightmarish odyssey of brutality, starvation, and death, where these kids repeatedly witness traces of the dead, the theft and slaughter of a farmer’s livestock, and the brutalizing of women, where Christel’s maternal generosity soon becomes laced with a paranoiac fear, where every man becomes a threat to her.  Intermixed with the child horrors are solitary moments of quiet and peace, where the cinematography by Leah Striker reflects the kind of world Hans reads about in his book, where he curiously observes frogs, lizards, and grasshoppers along the way, while moments later he’s racing for safety.  The continually changing environment offers new challenges, where the kids are surprisingly resilient and adaptive, and often choose to disappear with a helpful adult, while the others stay together.  In the end, however, Hans ends up fending off dangers on his own, where he’s not the same kid that set out on this journey, but he’s alive.  Given the amount of time the kids wander through dense woodland forest, there’s a mythical element of the inherent danger of Hansel and Gretel, especially every time they come upon a home where some new evil seems to await them in this often beautiful but overly dour recollection of postwar atrocities.

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