Two Jewish children, musical prodigies in the Ukraine in 1941, experience the excitement of an international tour. They meet a non-Jewish German girl who is keen to develop her musical skills and be mentored by them. However, the rising anti-semitism starts to impact upon their blossoming friendship, with disastrous consequences.

Musically-gifted children are at the heart of moving Holocaust drama.

FESTIVAL OF GERMAN FILMS: War movies are rarely more harrowing and unsettling than when they focus on hapless, innocent children, and so it proves with Wunderkinder.

Director/co-writer Marcus Rosenmüller views a seldom-aired chapter of World War 2 through the eyes of three musical prodigies, or "wunderkinder," who live in the village of Poltava in central Ukraine. The twist here is that Germans are among the persecuted.

The film is dedicated to the 1.5 million Jewish children who died in the Holocaust but there’s very little violence and bloodshed.

Rosenmüller ensures a growing sense of dread as his young protagonists’ lives are threatened but doesn’t achieve the emotional resonance of films such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Round Up or Life is Beautiful.

The premise came from veteran German producer Artur Brauner, a Holocaust survivor, who served as a producer with his daughter Alice, who said she wanted to avoid scenes of cruelty or brutality, partly so the film would be suitable for young audiences.

Despite their ethnic and religious differences, Jewish kids Larissa Brodsky (Imogen Burrell) and Abrascha Kaplan (Elin Kolev) form a pact -- 'siblings for life"-- with Hanna Reich ( Mathilda Adamik), the daughter of a wealthy German brewer.

Abrascha is a preternaturally gifted violist, Larissa plays the piano and Hanna plays the violin, and all share the same teacher, Irina (Gudrun Landgrebe), who’s Jewish. Hanna’s mother Helga (Catherine H. Flemming) disapproves of her fraternising with the Jewish pair but her dad Max (Kai Wiesinger) is more enlightened.

To glorify Stalin, the Ukrainian kids are sent on a concert tour to Moscow and Leningrad and are promised an engagement at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Told mostly via flashbacks, the narrative unfolds in 1941 as German forces invade the Soviet Union, breaking a pact signed by Hitler and Stalin. The two Jewish families bravely provide shelter for the Reich family. When the Nazis reach Poltava and begin deporting Jews, Max Reich tries to save as many as he can. The round up is dealt with clinically but that episode engenders a fair degree of pathos.

Of the three tyros who were recruited after the filmmakers auditioned 400 kids, Kolev is the most impressive as well as being a true prodigy: he played every note in the film. Burrell and Adamik falter occasionally but generally succeed in conveying their characters’ fear, courage and loyalty.

Konstantin Wecker is evil personified as SS Colonel Schartow, a smiling psychopath who forces the two Jewish kids literally play for their lives. His enthusiasm for new mobile gas vans is truly chilling.

The dialogue mostly sounds authentic although the scriptwriters are tempted occasionally to have the adult characters speak in slogans, as when one Jewish supporter says, 'The political system devours people. Individual struggle is all that’s left."

It’s a moving, absorbing drama which is marred slightly by several anomalies such as why Ukrainian children speak perfect German, and a finale which needlessly relies on crude symbolism.

Composer Martin Stock’s score will delight classical music fans, not the least the virtuoso Kolev.


1 hour 36 min
In Cinemas 06 September 2012,