Rick Osterman’s “Wolf Children” (Wolfskinder) premiered at the 70th Venice Film Festival August 29 as part of the official “Orrizonti” (Horizons) competition and is a chilling reminder of the hardships of children growing up during war. A German and Lithuanian co-production, “Wolf Children” shows the historic situation of German children who were attacked and killed by Soviet Red Army soldiers in the former German state of Prussia in 1947. The children are bent on survival and forced to scavenge for food in the woods that border Lithuania. They have summer on their side, which is one consolation but they are never safe from the ravages of war.
The cinematography by Leah Striker pays close attention to the balance of nature that becomes the children’s solace. Shots of frogs, butterflies, and blueberries give some relief to the relentless carnage and atrocities which no child should have to see or experience. Animals are used for food whenever possible.
Hans (Levin Liam) and his younger brother Fritzchen (Patrick Lorenczat) are told by their dying mother to make their way east to a farm where the people will provide for them. All they have is a locket with a picture of their parents as a letter of introduction. Hans and Fritzchen are soon separated in an attack by soldiers after they frantically swim away from the shore as the assassins aim their rifles. Two young girls, Christel (Helena Phil) and Ruth and a young boy flee with them. Only Hans, Christel and the younger boy survive. Fritzchen is nowhere to be found but Hans never gives up hope. Liam and Phil give commanding performances as the older children, each with their own sense of responsibility for the younger ones.
The film is seen through the perspective of Hans who is an alert boy always on the watch and ready to do what he has to do for himself and the others to survive. He is alone even when he finds companions, who temporarily make him forget his hunger and sense of loss of family and country.
The journey east involves the search for shelter and food in abandoned huts, fisherman sheds, barns, and the plain woods. For relief and for focus, Hans reads aloud from Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle and his exploration of the Galapagos Archipelago. It is comforting to him in his own odyssey in nature coping with personal survival. Often he is on boat traveling down the river. In a country that is shifting its territory and where no one can call it home, this is a fitting parallel.
Runaways are often taken in by Lithuanian or Russian farmers to help with the chores where they assume a new identity, which won’t make them prey for the Red Army.
The use of sound (David Hilgers) and image is inventive especially when the children sing and play, which is often non-synchronous or shown in slow motion. Such moments stand out from the otherwise bleak and distressing existence of these brave young children.