Saturday, October 19, 2013

Wolfschildren (orig. Wolfskinder) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

Wolfschildren (orig. Wolfskinder) [2013] (written and directed by first-time director Rick Oestermann) is a German film which according to its official website is dedicated to the estimated 9 million children around the world who for any number of reasons find themselves fending for themselves and living on the run.

The film, fictionalized, which played recently at the 49th Chicago International Film Festival is based on the true stories of thousands of so-called ethnic German "wolf children" who found themselves orphaned, trapped, lost and/or otherwise abandoned in former German East Prussia at the end of World War II.  Many of the children were eventually taken-in/adopted by sympathetic rural Lithuanian families in neighboring Soviet-occupied Lithuania.

Specifically the film, which begins in June 1946 or a full year after the end of World War II, focuses on two young brothers Fritchen, 14 (played by Patrick Lorenczat) and Hans, 9 (played by Levin Liam).  Together with their mother they had survived the year and most importantly the winter hiding in the attic of an out-of the-way abandoned work-house of sorts somewhere in the forests of East Prussia, foraging as necessary the largely abandoned fields and villages for food.  But now Mutti (played by Jördis Triebel) had come down with a fever and was clearly dying.  As her dying wish she asks her two sons to stick together, "not forget" their beautiful names, and find their way to a family in Lithuania that had previously been kind to them.   The next morning Mutti is dead.  With a poor shovel, the boys try to dig a shallow grave, cover their mother with a blanket, lining it with stones, cry, say an Our Father, and set-off East toward Lithuania.

When they get to a river, they see a corpse of a middle-aged woman in a broken row boat without oars.  When bullets start flying by, they learn why the woman was dead: the river crossing was being patrolled by the Soviet Army.  In a panic they try to rip off a couple of boards from the unseaworthy boat and in the subsequent chaos they find a group of other small children running toward the boat as well (the soldiers were actually shooting at the other children).   Soon all the kids dive into the water, bullets whizzing by, swimming for their lives to the other side.

Fritchen makes it to the other side of the river along with a girl about his age named Christel (played by Helena Phil) who has two smaller children in her care.  But what happened to his little brother Hans?  The last we see of saw him, Hans, who could not swim, was holding on to a board trying to kick-paddle across the river and the girl who was holding onto the board next to him had been shot.  Fritchen tries to look for his little brother but as shots continue to whiz by him from the other side of the river, he soon gives up.  Christel tries to assure him that Hans probably "made it" (safely) to the other side.  But there's no evidence that he did.  And as time passes and the two brothers _don't_ find each other there's even less reason to believe this.  But ... he must believe this wishful lie.  Why?  Because Fritzchen, himself, must get-up and go on ...

And so he does with his new group of rag-tag companions.  And they continue for a while until, one or another gets too sick, injured or otherwise separated to continue.  But whenever somebody leaves (or dies...) another child or two appears (from the wilderness) to take his/her place.  Yes, the children really find themselves living like animals: sincerely caring for each other ... until ... it's no longer possible/practical to do so.  And then they go on ...

On their journey, the children also run into a band of Lithuanian nationalist partisans still holding out in some forest somewhere in the East-Prussian/Lithuanian borderlands.  But their days are clearly numbered too.  The Red Army is hunting them presumably even more than they are hunting these ethnic German kids.

Indeed, the story of the Lithuanian partisans and these ethnic German kids hiding out in the woods feels exactly like the reverse of the story of the Bielski Brothers and the Jewish partisans hiding-out in the woods of Byelorussia during Nazi occupation made famous a number of years back by the excellent American/Hollywood film Defiance [2008].

But this perhaps becomes part of the film's manifold point: How the tables had turned by the end of the War. The most vulnerable of the "Master Race" now had to hide in many of the same woods that their nation's victims had to hide in while the "Master Race" was on top.  And given the ferocious fanaticism of the older (though still teen) members of the Hitler Youth in the closing stages of the war, I have no doubt that members of the Red Army patrolling those woods at the time probably FEARED these kids to say nothing of the Lithuanian partisans (and scattered former SS members perhaps still leading some of those units).

BUT ... WE ALSO SEE THAT THESE "WOLFSCHILDREN" were INDEED CHILDREN who by this point were _utterly unarmed_ (many/most too young to have EVER BEEN ARMED), now utterly NON-THREATENING and DESPERATE.    And we're honestly asked to see these children's plights.

The film ends (OBVIOUSLY A BIG SPOILER ALERT...) with Fritchen making it to a Lithuanian village where to his surprise he finds his brother Hans.  'Cept Hans is wearing now a nice Lithuanian peasant shirt and tells Fritchen that his new Lithuanian family now calls him Jakob.  "But your name is Hans.  Don't you remember what Mutti told us when she was dying."  "Yes, but this (nice) family feeds me ..."

And there it is and one just wants to cry ... What an unbelievably awful things these children (and their families) suffered.  What unbelievebly awful things _all the victims_ of that horrible war suffered and really the victims of all wars suffer.

Again, this film is dedicated to all the children of the world who for any number of reasons find themselves needing to live "on the run."

ADDENDUM: An excellent recent book surveying the post-war chaos in Europe is Kevin Lowe's Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (2013).

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