Jewish International Film Festival
‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ softens a dark chapter of history
One of Germany's few homegrown box office hits of last year, this portrait of a family’s life in exile during the 1930s brings Judith Kerr’s well-known children’s novel to the screen. Playing in Australia at the Jewish International Film Festival, this all-ages-friendly drama explores a horrific period through a young girl’s eyes.
By Sarah Ward
When a film peers at conflict from a child’s perspective, it attempts a delicate balancing act. Mine an inherently tragic and horrific situation for blatant tears, and the audience will feel their heartstrings being tugged. Overlook the widespread pain and suffering, and a filmmaker can turn brutal reality into a breezy or awkward war-set adventure. Many movies have attempted to walk this tricky path, and avoided falling down either side: Andrei Tarkovsky’s debut Ivan’s Childhood, Cate Shortland’s German-set Lore and Studio Ghibli’s animated masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies provide just three standout instances. Adapted from Judith Kerr’s well-known children’s novel, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit endeavours to join the better examples of this specific subgenre. Following a family’s life in exile during the 1930s, it springs from truth — the author herself fled Germany with her parents just as 1933’s elections took place — but it also favours a softer view of its dark chapter of history.
Never veering towards muted, forcibly sentimental or emotionally manipulative to a mawkish degree, yet always overtly palatable for younger viewers, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit actually attempts two balancing acts. It doesn’t merely tell a tale about children navigating a drastically changing world in the lead up to one of the 20th century’s major wars, but also relays that story for children, as its printed source material has since the 1970s. With that in mind, the film’s gentler and more optimistic tone is wholly unsurprising. Still, there is an immense difference between asking youthful minds to imagine the narrative in their heads and explicitly pairing it with scenic views and a rousing score. Audiences young and old feel for nine-year-old Anna Kemper (Riva Krymalowski), Kerr’s on-screen surrogate, as she’s forced to leave her Berlin life behind after her theatre critic father Arthur (Oliver Masucci) makes enemies with his outspoken anti-Nazi views. Viewers are moved, naturally, by the Kempers’ sudden and fraught departure to Switzerland, their efforts to forge a new life, their struggles when they later relocate to France and their sheer persistence to get by. And yet, there’s never any doubt that this pre-holocaust-set movie presents a cosy version of a horrendous reality.
When the film opens with a costume party attended by children dressed up in Nazi uniforms, it instantly steps into an era where ugly perspectives and the people and symbols behind them have started to become commonplace. The same applies not long afterwards, when one of Anna’s school friends is shocked when she says that she is Jewish — because her classmate doesn’t think that Anna looks the stereotypical part. Between these two instances of normalised authoritarianism and prejudice, Arthur receives a call from a police officer. He’s on a list, he’s told, and if Hitler wins the upcoming ballot, it won’t end well for him, his composer wife Dorothea (Carla Juri), the precocious Anna or the latter’s elder sibling Max (Marinus Hohmann). Neighbourhood busybodies are already observing the family’s every move, as their constant presence makes plain, which means that absconding quickly before the election is the only smart option.
Helmed by 2002 German Film Awards Best Director recipient Caroline Link (for Nowhere in Africa), When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is at its most potent — and best — in these early scenes, when the threat lingering at the Kempers’ door seems as if it fills every space around them, covers every surface and colours their every move. The tears streaming down Dorothea’s face, the unwillingness to yield that blazes in Arthur’s eyes, the heartache Anna grapples with in choosing just one favourite stuffed toy to take with her: separately, they sting with sorrow; together, they paint a picture of a family surviving by doing the only thing they can. Once safe passage has been made abroad, however, tension dissipates. Viewers know that worse is still to come in Germany, that the Second World War has not yet started, and that Anna and her loved ones cannot relax for a moment, but the same menace isn’t apparent in the feature’s Swiss and French-set scenes. Although Kerr’s experience must have been confusing, frightening and unsettling, and Anna makes it known how much she hates being a refugee — whether she’s being taunted by boys near Lake Zurich, or kept out of school in Paris because her parents can only afford to enrol Max — the film errs on the side of neatness over fear, terror and uncertainty.
Poignant but lacking texture
Also first reaching screens around the world at the end of 2019 and referencing the same long-eared mammal in its title, satirical comedy Jojo Rabbit similarly waded through World War II in the shoes of a child protagonist, and often found it a thorny task as well. Bringing levity to or showing comfort in a situation as abhorrent as the Third Reich should be difficult, of course, and delving into unrelenting distress is far from the only way to tackle the period. Perhaps if When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit hadn’t so firmly established a climate of xenophobia and oppression in its first third, everything that followed mightn’t have played so tidily. While woes still come the Kempers’ way, with a price put on Arthur’s head by the Nazis after they leave the country, anti-Semitism making its way to France by the time of their second move, and money so scarce that choosing between eating and electricity becomes a very real problem, the movie’s opening eclipses its latter sections not only in terms of reflecting the stress and anxiety of the time, but also in texture.
Thankfully, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’s key on-screen quartet remain compelling throughout. Krymalowski and Hohmann match their more-experienced co-stars — with Juri worlds away from 2013’s Wetlands and Masucci just as far from Netflix’sDark — and their combined performances prove the film’s strongest element. The noticeably handsome cinematography that makes the Switzerland-set sojourn feel like a holiday is warmly striking, and Link and her fellow screenwriter Anna Brüggemann (Stations of the Cross) find genuine heart in the plight of a family clinging together as the only life they knew slips out from beneath them. It all adds up to an engaging-enough movie, and an often-poignant one, too. But When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit also steals away its own power, leaving viewers wondering just how resonant it might’ve been if it had stared head-on at the horrors of the time rather than skirted elegantly around the edges.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is screening throughout this month at the 2021 Jewish International Film Festival.