Directed by Markus Rosenmuller
Starring Mathilda Adamik, Elin Kolev, Imogen Burrell, Gudrun Landgrebe, Mathias Eysen, Brigitte Grothum, Konstantin Wecker
Wunderkinder is ostensibly a children’s film, with its stated target audience being in the mid-tween rage, but it’s difficult to imagine a period piece in subtitled German drawing much of a crowd out of that demographic. It’s a shame, really, because although it goes over ground that has been turned and returned by the Holocaust drama subgenre, it’s a solid and occasionally quite beautiful film.
It tells the story of three children who meet in the Ukraine on the eve of World War 2. Hanna (Mathilda Adamik) is the daughter of a wealthy German brewer, while Abrascha (Elin Kolev) and Larissa (Imogen Burrell) are Ukrainian Jewish children. They are brought together because they all share a singular talent – they are musical prodigies. Training under their teacher, Irina Salamonova (Gudrun Landgrebe), their friendship blooms quickly and grows strong, in spite of their national, religious, and class differences. Of course, the German invasion of the USSR puts a strain on all that.
Being a Holocaust drama, there are certain tropes that are bound to show up: the rounding up of the victims, the evil Nazi officer (Konstantin Wecker is pretty chilling as Colonel Schartow, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before), the hiding from searching soldiers. here, though, director and co-writer Markus Rosenmuller changes things up a bit, reversing the usual set up by having Hanna’s German family hidden by the other children’s parent to protect them from anti-German reprisals, before the Wehrmacht rolls into town and things settle into a more familiar pattern.
That familiarity, combined with some simplistic characterizations and plot machinations, stop Wunderkinder from being a great film, though. Some of the dialogue is leaden, with characters speaking in political slogans rather than more realistic speech patterns, and an overreliance on symbolism in the third act, where the children are forced to literally play for their lives by Schartow. This is leavened by strong performances from the young actors in the central roles, and the simple fact that it takes an exceptionally hard heart not to empathise with children trapped in such dire circumstances.
Wunderkinder is a film that you want to love, but ultimately can’t. It’s obviously trying so very hard to say something profound, and its stated aim to bring this kind of story to a younger audience is laudable. Yet, while it’s a solid enough movie, it’s not quite strong enough to break out of the subtitle ghetto, meaning it’ll be mostly unnoticed by its intended viewers, while adults will be put off by the elements obviously intended to make it palatable for the young. It’s stuck right in the middle; it’s neither fish nor fowl, and so, while it gets an A for effort, sadly it’s only a C+ for execution.
(First published in X-Press, Issue 1332, 22/08/2012)