I remember reading Judith Kerr's semi-autobiographical novel 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit' at the young, tender age of eight or nine - the same age as the protagonist, Anna. It is a wonderful book, and perfectly positioned as an introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust. While some may say it is more an immigrant story than one of persecution, few can argue that Kerr's novel of refuge and survival is a charming, compassionate and poignant tale.
Thankfully, Academy-nominated German director Caroline Link ('Beyond Silence', 'Nowhere in Africa'), took the reigns of this film, managing to elicit the very same emotions in her screen adaption. Link herself notes that Kerr's book had a profound and lasting impact on her as a child, and that subsequent respect and gravity from the story is clear for all to witness.
The film opens on the cusp of the 1933 German elections, and although Anna (Riva Krymalowski) doesn't quite realise how or why her life is about to be irreversibly impacted. Coming from a Jewish family, her father, renown theatre critic and outspoken socialist Arthur Kemper (Oliver Masucci, 'Look Who's Back'), is high on the Nazi enemy list, so after receiving a tip from a friend, Arthur arranges for his wife and two children to flee the country. Starting in Zurich and then off to Paris and eventually London, the Kemper family are searching for safety and livelihood, but each stop presents its own challenges and hurdles for Anna and the family to overcome. As audiences watch Anna yearn for a return to her home and to the stuffed pink rabbit toy she left behind, it really encapsulates the childlike innocence that defines the heart behind the film.
'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit' shows war through the lens of a child, and whilst it might not be the first film to do so - 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' or last year's 'Jojo Rabbit' immediately comes to mind - Link really captures a warmth that is difficult to harness in light of the film's environment. Anna's uncle Julius (Justus von Dohnányi, 'Downfall'), in one of the more tender moments of the film, says goodbye to Anna and pleads with her to never let the light inside her heart fade, and it serves as a welcome reminder that this film, while dealing with heavy subjects, is ultimately about hope.
There is not much in terms of story here, which is why Link weaves this film together with moments and motifs rather than plot - and it is a refreshing take. Of course, there is the metaphor of the pink rabbit, but likewise there are elements and tangible objects that when repeated, imbue the loss or hope that thematically mould this film. They come in the form of balloons, pocket watches, music or food. It is commendable and often necessary to find new ways to tell these kinds of stories, and by using these motifs throughout the film, Link has no need to "dumb down" or dilute the story, but rather use it as a springboard for education. The intensity of the story is not lost, nor the horrors dramatised, but rather expressed without the need of death, visceral imagery or cruelty.
Everything unfolds through the eyes of Anna, and because her parents never wanted her to know the true nature of the situation, the journey the family embarks on almost feels like an adventure for Anna to grasp. It allows for empathetic storytelling, but most importantly for a film like this, it invites questions for children to grapple with. If Anna doesn't even know why she is being chased, or can't tell the difference between being Jewish or not, what does this mean for bigotry as a concept? Nobody is born with hatred, but what happens to an environment or a people that can turn on you so quickly? These are not easy questions to answer, but through the careful lens that Link tells this story, they are questions that can at least be explored.
Nobody is born with hatred, but what happens to an environment or a people that can turn on you so quickly? These are not easy questions to answer, but through the careful lens that Link tells this story, they are questions that can at least be explored.
Younger audiences should really be encouraged to seek out this film, whether or not they have read the novel. In a most impressive debut, Riva Krymalowski is an absolute star, and easily carries the emotion of this film on her shoulders. The love she feels for her family - notably the intimate scenes with her father - set against the backdrop of a world she no longer understands, is no easy task - especially for a first-time child actor. However, Krymalowski is outstanding in the way she portrays balanced resolute bravery with a heartfelt sadness.
As someone who has seen many Holocaust films, this is by no means a new story, nor a particularly sad one. Amazingly, the survival story of the Kemper family is relatively straightforward, or at least it seems that way in the eyes of Anna. The moments that weave this film together are tight and well-balanced, which is a huge credit to the confidence the director has in the material. Echoing my words earlier, this is not really plot-driven as much as it could be, relying instead on the characters and their strife.
Less quirky than 'Jojo Rabbit' and less dramatised than 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas', there is still lots to admire about 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit'. Whilst it lacks the gut-punch one might expect from a film of this nature, it is filled with surprisingly funny moments that aids the film's heart, as well as being incredibly poignant - and above all else, raises important questions for children. In terms of introductory films that address the horrors of the Second World War, this film goes a long way in putting its hand up for number one spot.