Based on a bestseller that was itself based on a true story (the real-life protagonist appears under the end credits), “Run Boy Run” sticks faithfully, albeit highly unimaginatively, to its source. For his Holocaust saga of an 8-year-old Jewish child cast adrift in Nazi-occupied Poland, vet German helmer Pepe Danquart relies on the pathos inherent in the situation to carry his film emotionally as the kid’s struggle for survival increasingly reflects the Jewish people’s struggle to maintain their identity in the face of genocide. A natural for Jewish viewers and older arthouse-goers, “Run Boy Run” feels too old-fashioned and by-the-numbers for a wider audience.
Srulik (played by twins Andrzej and Kamil Tkacz) escapes the roundup in his hometown to hide out in the woods. He hooks up briefly with a small bunch of Jewish kids also on the run, who have banded together to forage off the land, roasting stolen chickens around a fire and keeping morale alive by swapping displays of bravado. But after an unsuccessful chicken-snatching raid results in the capture of some kids and the scattering of others, Srulik once again finds himself alone as bitter winter and the Gestapo close in.
Calling himself “Jurek” to disguise his Jewishness, he seeks temporary shelter or employment at a succession of farmhouses, encountering slammed doors and an occasional odd job until he arrives at the home of Magda (Elisabeth Duda, excellent), wife and mother of partisans, who teaches him everything he needs to pass as Catholic. Magda is the closest the film ever comes to an authentic character. Even Jurek, in virtually every frame of the film, is defined almost solely by his will to live, functioning mainly as a witness to events with little personal coloration or interiority.
By the same token, the people whom Jurek encounters on his desperate, years-long wanderings function like a running tally of relative Polish innocence or guilt in the Holocaust, rather than distinct characters. Thus, when a farm accident costs Jurek his arm, a “bad” doctor refuses to operate because the boy is a Jew, while another, “good” doctor tends him and helps him to escape.
Danquart’s anecdotal, checklist-style approach furnishes fodder for the simplest kind of identification with his hero, and the sheer presentation of these terrible grievances may prove sufficiently empathy-inducing for the target audience. Changes of tone, although possible, are rarely pursued; in the film’s one foray into humor, the handicapped Jurek delights in inventing more and more outrageously heroic stories about how he lost his arm, but this entertaining, tale-spinning talent disappears without a trace. If the Tkacz twins’ thesping never hits a wrong note, it rarely provides access to any process of consciousness. Even the character’s ultimate choice between assimilation and the assumption of his Jewish heritage reads merely as a choice between signposts.
Daniel Gottschalk’s panoramic lensing accents the desolation of the vast spaces traversed by the lone boy, while Stephane Moucha’s sweeping score supplies an overabundance of the emotion lacking elsewhere.