Berlin, 1933. Anna lives with her parents and older brother Max in relative luxury. But dad is a Jewish author, and Jewish authors aren’t very popular in Berlin at the moment. They slip away to Switzerland, taking only a few possessions, and there’s no space for her old toy, pink rabbit.
Things aren’t so great in Switzerland either, where antisemitism is prevalent and no-one’s prepared to publish any of dad’s articles, so they move on to Paris. They speak differently in France, and the owner of the place they’re staying doesn’t like Jews much, but dad finds some work as a theatre reviewer. Until the very end of the story, when they get the ferry to Dover.
That is, pretty much, the sum of the plot, but it was enough to produce a best-selling novel based on the real-life experiences of Judith Kerr. Now I haven’t read the book, but it sounds like a very interesting and necessary chronicle of an important part of history, not least because Anna’s experiences are being relived by refugees today. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work as a film.
There are a few reasons for this, some, but not all, of which can be found in the original story. For a start, the decision to show everything through the eyes of a 9- (later 10-) year old girl somehow dulls the importance of what is happening in the world. Now this may very well work in the novel, but on screen you never really get a sense of the immensity of the growing Nazi threat, so the day-to-day stories all seem a little trivial really.
Secondly, and this is related, Anna’s family is never seen to suffer much. When your biggest problem is only being able to send one of your kids to private school, its difficult to see Anna’s family as being representative of all refugees. Things do get a bit tough for them, but when they are too bad, Anna’s dad doesn’t have too much difficulty finding work in a different country.
And then there is a more general problem – great novels only very rarely make great films. There are a couple of exceptions, like Women In Love or Roman Polanski’s Tess, but generally speaking, novels have more time to breathe, and long descriptive passages which work on the page don’t always fit the urgency of film. This means that the different rhythms used by novelists often get lost in translation.
In this case, it results in a film with characters who rarely engage us enough for us to be really interested enough in what is happening together to them. And because the real threat that they are under is minimized, we also find it hard to identify with the jeopardy they’re in. You want to engage with the plot – and this may happen when you’re reading the book – but in the cinema, you’re just left a bit cold.
None of this makes Als Hitler das rosa Kaninchen stahl a bad film. For a start, the subject matter is too important to ignore. And, more importantly, Riva Krymalowkski is absolutely compelling as the young moppet Anna. While nothing much is going on around her, you just feel for her completely. Apparently this is her first film, but this is one of those Natalie Portman in Léon performances which has you waiting to see what she’s going to do next.
Its a shame that she’s not well served by an uninspiring script and limpid plot, but Krymalowkski shines in every scene, so while you (that is, I) may leave the cinema feeling a little disappointed, you’re not going to feel entirely cheated.