Based on historical events, helmer-scribe Rick Ostermann’s “Wolfskinder” is a handsome drama that follows orphaned German children as they wander the chaotic wilderness of Soviet-occupied East Prussia after Germany’s WWII defeat. Traveling alone or in makeshift families, they struggle to avoid the predatory Red Army and to find enough food to remain alive. Despite the fascinating subject matter, the pic suffers in comparison with Cate Shortland’s recent “Lore,” which literally covered similar ground in more compelling fashion. Moreover, a surfeit of forced lyricism undermines the tale’s natural poignancy, making fest and ancillary exposure more likely than theatrical play offshore.
The opening moments in the summer of 1946 establish a grim (or Grimm) fairy-tale atmosphere, as bold 9-year-old Fritz (Patrick Lorenczat) robs a bird’s nest and then steals, shoots and slices up a horse, while his more sensitive older brother, 12-year-old Hans (Levin Liam), watches from the sidelines. Before she breathes her last, their ailing mother (Jordis Triebel) tells Hans to look after Fritz, although viewers already know that the tough younger lad is much better prepared for their ensuing ordeal than his sibling.
While the pic’s overall theme concerns how these forced-to-be-feral children managed to survive, the narrative arc centers on Hans as he hardens from a dreamy youth into a pragmatic survivor. As the brothers try to make their way east to a friendly farmer in Lithuania, they become separated under Russian fire. The camera remains with the guilt-stricken Hans and his suddenly acquired new traveling companions: maternal tween Christel (Helena Phil) and the younger lost siblings Luise (Vivien Ciskowska) and Karl (Willow Voges-Fernandes).
The disturbingly temporary nature of this ad-hoc group is highlighted when Hans palms the wounded Karl off on the farmer and tries to comfort the disconsolate Luise by allowing an even younger boy (Til-Niklas Theinert) to tag along with them.
As the increasingly bedraggled and hungry kids navigate the dense forest and dangerous bogs and attempt to find succor at local farms, debuting director Ostermann continually subverts the tension evoked by their physical hardships with arty interludes highlighting the beauty of nature or the youngsters’ natural innocence. His decision not to subtitle the Lithuanian or Russian dialogue heard later in the film may well mimic the experience of his protagonists, but it, too, brings the audience out of the viewing experience.
While the child performers acquit themselves well, the impressive widescreen camerawork by Leah Striker is the pic’s strongest asset. Costumes strike a period look, but remain unbelievably clean and intact given the characters’ travails. Pensive score sets an appropriate mood.