Film review of Wunderkinder

September 6, 2012

This film review of “Wunderkinder” appeared (in a slightly different form) in the Australian Jewish News on 6  September 2012.

Directed by Marcus O. Rosenmuller

Few statistics from the Holocaust are more devastating than the knowledge that up to 1.5 million Jewish children were killed by the Nazis.  Their stories have been presented on screen many times, with notable classics including “Europa, Europa”, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, “Au Revoir Les Enfants” and “Korczak”.

The new German film “Wunderkinder” (literally: “child prodigy”) opens nationally in Australia this week, after well-received previews at the German and the Melbourne International Film Festivals.  “Wunderkinder” is not destined to become a classic – and unlike the four films above is not actually based on a true story.

“Wunderkinder” suffers from a budget that makes the film feel more like a telemovie than a “big screen” experience: the uniforms are too crisp, the settings too clean and uncluttered, the pacing a bit too sedate and some of the acting too self-conscious for such strong drama.

And yet “Wunderkinder” works, partly because of its setting of young people, music and the looming shadow of the Holocaust. The film tells the story of two young prodigal Jewish musicians in the Ukraine in 1941:  Larissa Brodsky (Imogen Burrell) and Abrascha Kaplan (Elin Kolev), who be-friend Hanna Reich (Mathilda Adamik), a wealthy non-Jewish German girl who is desperate to play with them.

Set on the eve of the Nazi occupation and told mostly in flashback, the film’s understated approach to the impact of the impending Holocaust on Jewish children is intelligent, sensitive and nuanced.  The portrayal of both Soviets and Nazis is remarkably well-done, with rich characters and a fine script.  There is the charming but truly creepy German SS Colonel Schartow (Konstantin Wecker), who literally forces the Jewish musicians into life or death performances.  This role could have been a cliché, but instead comes to represent all that was wrong with the Nazis:  while intelligent and articulate, they were brutal, heartless, immoral and unbearably cruel.

Young German professional violinist Elin Kolev gives a standout performance as the young Jewish man, in part because he gets to play a version of himself.  Although not Jewish, he is in fact a child prodigy musician (and does his own music in the film), and reportedly beat out 400 other contenders for the role.  He may soon be typecast in the role of a Jewish musician: he is starring in German film, “Bronislaw Huberman – Orchestra of Exiles”.  This German-Israeli co-production depicts the life of the Polish-Jewish virtuoso violinist who founded the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, which later became the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

There is something unusual in watching German-made fictional films about the Holocaust.  The German willingness to acknowledge and indeed embrace the worst atrocities of the Nazi period remains one of the most enduringly positive elements of modern German society.  It is hard to think of other countries whose artistic elite have done the same; most seem to fall into a collective historical amnesia.

Not surprisingly, last year “Wunderkinder” won a major award from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for “artistic achievement in Holocaust-related film”.  It has played at a number of international Jewish film festivals.

The trailer for the film can be seen below:

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Russian Resurrection Film Festival in Australia

September 6, 2012

Review of the Russian Resurrection Film Festival appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 6 September 2012

It’s the closest you can get to Russia without visiting. In its ninth year in Australia, the 2012 Russian Resurrection Film Festival brings twenty-five films, including two classic Chekhovian dramas from the 1970s, two unusual children’s films and three classics about the 1812 invasion of Russia by Napoleon.

Undoubtedly the most interesting film of the Festival is the war film “Match”, which takes place in Nazi-occupied Kiev.  In the so-called “Death Match” of August 1942, Kiev’s best football club Dynamo Kiev beat a team of star German Luftwaffe players, despite alleged threats to kill the Ukrainians if they won.  For decades after the event, the accepted version of the story was that all of the Ukrainian players were murdered by the Nazis for defying the orders to “throw” the match. This story has been immortalised in books and movies, including the 1981 Hollywood film “Escape to Victory” starring Sylvester Stallone and Pele as Allied POWs who beat a Nazi football team.  But following Ukrainian independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a different story emerged: while some of the players were arrested and a few subsequently shot, it was because they had attempted to kill German soldiers

Although set in the Ukraine, the film “Match” was made by Russians and follows the traditional Russian line on the events of 1942. This includes portraying the mayor of Kiev as a Nazi stooge (warmly welcoming the Germans as they occupy the city) and showing most Ukrainian speakers as collaborators whereas the Russian speakers are uniformly heroic. Few of us non-Russian speakers will be able to detect the intricacies of who speaks Russian and who speaks Ukrainian, but what is clear – although not commented on in reviews I have read – is that the film virtually ignores the tragedy which befell Ukrainian Jews upon the Nazi occupation. At the time, some 20 percent of Kiev’s population (175,000) was Jewish, and the first killings at Babi Yar – over two murderous days – were of almost 34,000 Jews. Despite its extensive cast and budget, “Match” skips this history and in fact re-writes parts of it.

“Match” became controversial in April and May of this year, when Ukraine threatened to ban the film. Authorities expressed concerns that it would stir anti-German violence during the Euro 2012 championships about to begin, with German teams slated to play a number of games in Kiev. Lest we think that the past is dead and buried, the complicated German-Russian-Ukrainian relationship is still being played out on soccer fields and cinema screens.

For fans of cinema history, the festival’s highlights are undoubtedly the historical films on the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s march into Russia. The Festival showcases the joint French-Russian silent film “1812” (appropriately enough, released in 1912) and Sergei Bondarchuk’s massive 1967 version of “War and Peace”, which runs a full seven hours. The latter film won the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1969 and reportedly used 120,000 extras to re-enact the battle of Borodino. At an “inflation-adjusted” production cost of $560million, some claim it is the most expensive film ever made. Truly one to be savoured in the cinema. Just bring your lunch and dinner.

The Festival has been highly successful in bringing some of the most popular Russian films of the last year to Australia, including the box office romance hits “Yolki 2 sequel to Six Degrees of Celebration” (Red Square on New Years Eve) and “Two Days”, which is set against debates of Russian culture and literature.

The Festival also features two fascinating reflections of how Russian society is beginning to engage with spiritual pursuits, with “My Boyfriend is an Angel” and the Russian tank equivalent to “Sink the Bismarck”, the World War II film “White Tiger” based on the novel “Tankman” by Ilya Boyashov. The rich variety of current Russian cinema is also evident in the most popular Russian animated film ever released, “Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf”.