Having long settled in Britain after fleeing Nazi Germany with her family as a young girl, Judith Kerr wrote her semi-autobiographical 1971 children’s novel “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” as a response to her own son’s Hollywood-tilted misconception of her childhood. After watching “The Sound of Music,” he observed that her own escape must have been similar; amused, she proceeded to pen perhaps the most piercing child’s-eye view of Hitler’s rise to power and the Jewish refugee experience ever published — an episodic tale long on wry culture-clash observation and intimate familial strife, but short on Edelweiss sentimentality. In adapting Kerr’s novel for the screen, writer-director Caroline Link splits the difference somewhat: In this bright, engaging film, Kerr’s story is faithfully and lovingly preserved, though its tougher, quirkier details are mollified by a layer of palatable movie gloss.
Reaching U.S. screens nearly 18 months after its release in Germany, Link’s film should satisfy the nostalgic demands of any viewers who grew up on Kerr’s novel — in large part thanks to some ideal casting and attentive period detailing. Unlike the book, this gently paced, multilingual saga is likely to be embraced more by an adult audience than a youthful one: Kerr’s bifocal storytelling trick of conveying harsh grown-up history in naive terms is harder to replicate on the screen than on the page. The prevailing tone here is not far from that of Link’s Oscar-winning 2002 feature “Nowhere in Africa,” which also depicted the fish-out-of-water refugee experience of a German-Jewish family in the 1930s, softening a few sharp edges along the way.
The new film’s great coup is the casting of its preteen protagonist Anna, a fretful and fanciful child who understands the ugly realities of the German Reich only in terms of how they disrupt her small, cosseted domestic world. Wholly captivating in her big-screen debut, Riva Krymalowski is not just a vivid physical match for the dark, lively figure of Kerr’s illustrations, but has the rare child actor’s gift of playing alert thoughtfulness without veering into the precious or precocious.
We meet 9-year-old Anna in Berlin in 1933, hiding from boys in Nazi uniform at a children’s fancy-dress party, before her Zorro-masked older brother Max (Marinus Hohmann, warmly responsive with his onscreen sister) fends them off. To her, Nazis are little more than costume villains, though on the eve of Hitler’s election, her parents are rather more concerned. Her journalist father Arthur (Oliver Masucci) is an outspoken critic of the Nazi Party; fearful that his passport will be confiscated, he hurriedly hops the border to Switzerland, arranging for his composer wife Dorothea (Carla Juri, “Blade Runner 2049”) and children to follow in due course. Anna rationalizes this upheaval as little more than a novel vacation; what no one quite has the heart to tell her is that she’s unlikely to see her Berlin home again any time soon, if ever.
Where Kerr’s plain prose made clear the muddle of half-comprehending terror and excitement in these overnight disappearances and covert goodbyes, Link’s polished, deliberate approach doesn’t ever knot the stomach to quite the same extent: If the practical and emotional stakes of the family’s crisis are clarified in several heart-to-heart talks between Anna and her weary-wry father, the rhythm of the filmmaking is a little too even to ever suggest much threat.
The film’s second, Swiss-set chapter is its lightest, marked by glorious tourist-board mountainscapes and pastoral depictions of simple village life, with Bella Halben’s lensing — never shy of light at any stage — positively drunk on sunshine. The third, which sees the well-to-do family relocate to Paris, is more shaded and eventful, as Arthur’s struggle to find consistent writing employment plunges the hitherto well-to-do household into unfamiliar poverty.
Compressing the events of the book somewhat, Link captures incidental everyday challenges — the struggle of buying an item as minor as a pencil when you don’t know the language, the delights of an unexpected meal when you’re on a budget — in lovely, isolated vignettes. More overtly oppressive forces of anti-Semitism and class conflict are sketched in with a heavier hand, though the natural, genial family dynamic between the four fine principals is a consistent grounding factor, never feeling affected or overplayed. Textured, authentic production design and perceptively reused costumes are likewise persuasive. Only Volker Bertelmann’s uncharacteristically dainty, over-applied score aggravates, too quick to color in emotions that the script itself rarely leaves to chance. Half a century after the book’s publication, Link’s film misses some of its more intangible atmospherics — but proves the cinematic scale and sweep that was always in its pages.