Wunderkinder is the debut feature for German writer/director Marcus Rosenmüller and tells the true story of three prodigiously talented children, Abrascha Kaplan (Elin Kolev), Larissa Brodsky (Imogen Burrell) and Hanna Reich (Mathilda Adamik). The film takes place in Poltava, Ukraine in 1941, the year the Nazis invaded the town and declared all Jewish children to be exterminated.
It’s not easy for the Germans to talk about this history. The current
generation, those less than 30 years old, doesn’t want to feel guilty...
The devastating narrative is based on true events uncovered by Artur Brauner, a veteran producer of more than 300 films, including Europa Europa (1990) and The Last Train (2006). Brauner, now 92, is a Holocaust survivor who has dedicated the past 20 years of his career to producing films solely about the subject of WWII.
“[Brauner] found the original, true story about Heinrich Himmler, one of the most terrible Nazis,” Rosenmüller explains. “In the 1940s Himmler ordered that Jewish children in the Ukrainian town of Poltava be killed because he didn't want his children to be the same school as Jewish children. This horrendous true story was the basis of the script.”
The producers (Brauner and his co-producing partner, daughter Alice) initially approached Rosenmüller to just read and revise the script. “I said, 'Let's do one crucial thing: let's tell the story solely from the point of view of the children',” the director says. “I rewrote the script with the children as the focus; there is not a single scene only with adults.”
While Rosenmüller had extensive experience directing films for television as well as a history of directing music videos, he was not an obvious choice to direct a film.
“It was a long road to get their confidence,” he admits. “They are Jewish and were very careful about who would make the film. After the rewrite they had the confidence that I was the right director for the project.”
Rosenmüller decided early in the process that he required a real-life prodigy to play the title role of Abrascha Kaplan, the young Jewish violinist whose life is under threat from the Nazi invasion. His casting call attracted 400 hopefuls but when Elin Kolev auditioned, the director knew he'd found his actor.
“Elin came to the casting and his violin playing was amazing. It was so much better than anyone else.”
Kolev, whose personal schedule includes rehearsals of five hours each day, plays each piece of music his character performs in the film.
“We were also very surprised with his acting,” Rosenmüller adds. “He was extremely precise and learned fast about what was important. After the film, I asked him honestly what he wanted to achieve in his career: to become a famous violin player or an actor. He says he wants to be both.”
All three of the children had limited experience in front of the camera before production began. “We had a coach for the children and one of the most important things was to hold readings with them together with the professional adult actors three or four weeks before shooting. We discussed every scene, every sentence, every moment with the children. I told them to ask me about history, to ask any questions about the script, anything that they didn't understand. I wanted to give them a sense of security before shooting.”
While the children worked alongside such experienced actors such as Gedeon Burkhard (Inglourious Basterds), their success in inhabiting their roles was the key to the film's success. Of the 38 days of shooting, the children were required on set for 35 of them. It was a task they managed without difficulty. “We had a wonderful time during shooting,” the director recalls.
While the setting of the film is in central Ukraine on the Vorskla River, location scouting in the area proved fruitless; the town's historical buildings were destroyed in the war, and very little of the 1940s architecture that the film required for verisimilitude with the past remained. The production team found an alternative location in the similar landscape of Northern Germany, and the designers recreated wartime Poltava using historical photos, and with Jewish artefacts verified by historans.
“It was important to have experts for the research for these special items. This is a historical film and as much as possible, it's historically accurate,” Rosenmüller says.
Wunderkinder debuted in Jerusalem for an audience of Holocaust survivors, and the emotional response from an audience so deeply affected by the real-life events was palpable, according to Rosenmüller. At subsequent screenings, the director has been touched by the reactions of children.
“They said they'd heard about the Holocaust in school but had not seen it through the eyes of children,” he says. “They asked very similar questions to the children in the film, questions about the Nazis and World War II. It was clear they could feel how the children in the film felt and through them had a much better identification for history.”
Rosenmüller faced opposition in Germany for making a film about the Holocaust. “There were people who dismissed the film as 'another film about the Holocaust',” he says. “They asked 'Why don't you make a film about the Palestinian-Jewish problem we have now?' Of course, that's important but Wunderkinder is a totally different thing. It's not easy for the Germans to talk about this history. The current generation, those less than 30 years old, doesn't want to feel guilty for what their grandparents or parents did, but that's not the point. I think it's very important for the next generation to see films about this, to see what happened in Germany and all over the world 70 years ago, so it will never happen again.”
Wunderkinder screens as part of the Next Gen showcase of the Melbourne International Film Festival. Viewing for senior secondary students is advised.
Wunderkinder opens nationally on 6th September. Sneak previews are this weekend (Aug 31 - Sep 2).