Film review of Wunderkinder

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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