By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 5, 2021)
Writers spend an inordinate amount of time sitting around and thinking about writing. To the casual observer it may appear he or she is just sitting there staring into space, but at any given moment (trust me on this one) their senses are working overtime.
Consequently, films about writers and/or writing can be a tough row to hoe (how do you parlay the seed of inspiration blooming in a writer’s mind into a visual?). Consider Caroline Link’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, of which I had no idea was a semi-autobiographical story about the germination of a writer until a screen crawl at the end informed me so.
The writer in question is Judith Kerr (who passed away at 95 in 2019, just months before the film premiered in Germany). I was an avid reader as a kid, but somehow missed Ms. Kerr’s trilogy of children’s books “Out of the Hitler Time”. First published in 1971, “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” was volume one of that series (as I have come to learn).
This family-friendly drama (adapted from Kerr’s novel by Link with Anna Brüggemann) centers on 9-year-old Anna Kemper (Riva Krymalowski), who lives with her parents and her older brother Max (Marinus Hohman) in late Weimer Germany. Her mother (Carla Juri) is a classical pianist, and her father (Oliver Mascucci) is a high-profile theater critic.
As this is Berlin in 1933, the elephant in the room is one Adolph Hitler, who is on the verge of dominating the imminent election. And as the Kempers are Jewish, this is not the ideal time for them to be in Berlin. While the Nazis have yet to “officially” seize control, Anna’s dad has been an outspoken critic of Hitler for a spell and awaits the election results with consternation. Informed that he’s on the Nazis’ “list”, he takes a trip to Prague, instructing his family to meet up with him in Switzerland should Hitler prevail.
When Hitler prevails, the family must pack quickly and skedaddle. They also must pack light, forcing Anna to make a difficult choice to leave her beloved stuffed pink rabbit behind, under the watchful eye of the family’s devoted housekeeper (Ursula Werner). Soon after the family reunites in Switzerland, Anna learns that the Nazis have not only absconded with Pink Rabbit, but all the Kemper’s possessions (and burned Dad’s books).
Despite the country’s alleged neutrality, things get a little hot in Switzerland after a few months and the family moves to Paris. When word reaches the Kempers that the Nazis have put a price on dad’s head, they eventually have to flee France to merry old England.
The initial scenes of the family hiking through lush Swiss Alpine scenery suggests you may have been roped into an unofficial remake of The Sound of Music, but ultimately When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is better viewed as The Diary of Anne Frank with a less heartbreaking postscript. I don’t intend that as a glib observation; after all, the wartime experiences of young “Anna” mirror those of Kerr herself…this is her life story.
The film is not really “about” Hitler, the Nazis, or even WW2. Rather, it is about the resilience of children, and the power of a child’s imagination. Through Anna’s eyes (helped immensely by young Krymalowski’s wonderful performance) I found myself transported back to that all-too-fleeting “secret world” of childhood. It’s that singular time of life when worries are few and everything feels possible (before that mental baggage carousel backs up with too many overstuffed suitcases, if you catch my drift).
Certain elements of Anna’s story resonated with me in a personal way (aside from the fact that she and I both had a Jewish mother). I think it’s because I grew up as a military brat. It’s a nomadic life; not so much by choice as by assignment. In the military, you follow orders, and if you have a family, they follow you. To this day, no matter where I’m living, or how long I have lived there, I feel like a perennial “outsider”.
One way I coped with the constant uprooting was to retreat into my rather vivid imagination. I remember creating comic books (mostly involving adventures in outer space) featuring characters named after friends I met along the way. I also wrote short stories for my own amusement. I hadn’t thought about that in years, but was triggered by watching Anna noodle caricatures and such throughout the film (Judith Kerr also did the illustrations for her books).
Nazi Germany is something we can only hope never again occurs in any way, shape, or form. There are myriad films you can watch if you wish to steep in the utter horror of it all. But even during wartime, life goes on. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is best likened to the selective recollections of a carefree childhood: no matter what the harsh realities of the big world around you may have been, only the most pleasant parts will forever linger in your mind.
(“When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” is currently streaming via SIFF Channel)