Wednesday, May 19, 2021

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit: Caroline Link Adapts Judith Kerr

Her father was a theater critic who scathingly panned Bertolt Brecht, whom he accused of plagiarism. Eventually, she would write the beloved children’s book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, so there should be plenty of good karma for their family. However, it did not seem that way for the secular Jewish family in 1933 Berlin. Warned by a sympathetic police source, the Kerrs opted for a life in exile while they could. Kerr told her family story in her fictionalized 1971 YA novel, the first of the Out of Hitler Time Trilogy. Shortly after her death in 2019, both the BBC animated production of Tiger and Caroline Link’s adaptation of When Hitler Stole Pink Bunny premiered in Europe. The latter, Link’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, now actually opens theatrically this Friday in major American markets.

The Kerrs are now the Kempers, but father Arthur is still a drama critic and anti-Hitler political commentator, while his wife Dorothea remains a pianist and composer. Nine-year-old Anna Kemper does not understand politics, but the continuation of the life she has always known hinges on an election. Tipped that the National Socialists intend to confiscate her father’s passport, the Kempers make haste to Switzerland. If Hitler loses, they will immediately return. Of course, that does not happen.

Suddenly, Kemper and her teen brother Max must navigate the mores and customs of Swiss youth and adapt to linguistic differences. They are resilient, but it is difficult for their family to make ends meet, because the neutral Swiss are afraid to publish the outspoken Arthur Kemper, for fear of offending their new neighbors. As a result, the Kempers start to hope Paris represents greener pastures.

Although the Kempers largely escape the worst horrors of WWII (as far as the nuclear family is concerned, which tragically does not include Uncle Julius, Anna’s godfather), they still face a great deal of anti-Semitism—especially in France. Yet, the film is surprisingly optimistic. Of course, the Kerr/Kemper family obviously had impeccable timing, always getting out while the getting was good. Yet, even after losing their wealth and privilege, they come together as a family.

Oliver Masucci is terrific portraying the wounded pride and dignity of Arthur Kemper, as well as his protective fatherly nature. Carla Juri does some of her best work as the fierce 1930s tiger-mom, Dorothea. Frankly, many viewers will grow frustrated waiting for Riva Krymalowski’s Anna Kemper to grow up, recognize the gravity of her parents’ situation, and finally start acting accordingly (after all, kids pick up on these things better than anyone). Still, that is much more a function of Link’s decisions. The young thesp clearly does everything asked of her.

Still, as portrayed by Marinus Hohmann, the conflicts between Max Kemper’s angsty teen resentments and his awareness of the family’s struggles are much more realistic and credible. Yet, probably the most poignant scenes involve Justus von Dohnanyi as Uncle Julius.

There is a lot of hope in
Pink Rabbit, which is a nice change, especially since it is opens in the wake of terrorist group Hamas’s latest rocket attacks on Tel Aviv. Some things haven’t changed since Kemper/Kerr’s early childhood. Regardless, for young viewers, it offers a fresh, highly watchable perspective on a beloved author and a dark period of history. Recommended as a smart, challenging family film, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit opens Friday (5/21) in New York, at the Quad.