Director: Tobias Wiemann (Germany, Spain). Year of Release: 2022
Marseilles, 1940. Rolf and his dad are walking along the beach, playing the game “Gut oder Böse”. Dad points at a passer-by, and Rolf has to say whether they’re good or evil. That woman there? She’s reading a book, she’s probably good. The one over there? Maybe evil, but it’s a lot harder to play when they’re only wearing swimming costumes. Him? Good. The man moves a bit to reveal his SS uniform. No, Capitalböse.
Rolf’s dad is a radical journalist, and they’re fleeing Berlin. The plan is to get the train to to Spanish border, walk over the Pyrenees than carry on to Portugal where they can get a ship to New York, where Rolf’s mother is waiting. Dad explains to Rolf that he’s on a list, and if the Nazis catch him, the result could be pretty gruesome. The US-Americans aren’t too keen to accept him either, but they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it-
There’s someone they have to meet first. They go into the local café and while dad fetches drinks from the bar, she sketches Rolf, and his dog Adi (the name may, or may not be a truncation of Adolf). Back in the day she was a world famous artist. Now she forges transit visas. If she were able to get down to Rick’s bar in Casablanca, she could make a killing, but for now she’s doing it for free to help the Cause.
Armed with the appropriate documents, Rolf and his dad meet up with some friends – maybe better call them comrades – near the border. Because of all the armed patrols, it would be too dangerous for them to accompany the fugitives across the mountains. Instead Rolf and dad will be led by Núria, a Catalonian girl not much older than Rolf.
Núria believes that her parents were killed in the Spanish Civil War, and she carries the weight on the world on her shoulders. As the film continues, she lightens up slightly, but she’s at her best when she’s utterly sullen. She tries frustratedly to communicate with Rolf in broken German, but though her vocabulary is quite extensive, she just can’t build proper sentences. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
Everybody tells Rolf that he can’t take Adi with them – it would just be too dangerous. But in the middle of the night, Rolf drugs the dog on dad’s cognac and smuggles it into his backpack. This proves fatal, for dad at least. When a Nazi patrol comes through the forest, Adi breaks free, and the Nazis approach the rock behind which the refugees are hiding. To protect the 2 children, dad comes out of hiding and gives himself up. He is carted away in the back of their truck.
Rolf insists on trying to rescue dad, so he and Núria turn around and head towards a nearby town where they presume he is being held. On their way, they encounter some Catalonian partisans. Initially suspicious, they see that Rolf is reading a book by the banned author Erich Kästner, and realise that he and Núria must be ok. They are offered a barn to sleep in. Then the partisan camp comes under attack and they must flee once more.
Der Pfad is advertised as a children’s film, which I guess it is, if this term means anything at all. But it treats its audience like rational, thinking beings, and openly depicts the terror of Nazi soldiers. It is a ripping yarn, and has been accused of making flight from the Nazis look a bit too much like a fun adventure. I understand the criticism but find it slightly unfair. At no time do you get the feeling that the children are enjoying their situation, and Núria in particular is obviously battle scarred.
Indeed, the fact that the story is effectively shown through the eyes of a child adds to the horror. The knowledge that your father is on a list which means that he could be taken away and exterminated. Or that your parents have chosen resistance to bringing up a child who they obviously adore. Yes there are moments where the kids try to make light of the extraordinary situation in which they find themselves, but they are permanently in a state of fear.
The ending is slightly sentimental, but even here not everyone lives happily after. It is the best possible outcome, but only under a logical framework which understands the horrors of Nazi occupation. We can even allow the slightly mawkish scene in which Núria decides that she’s not all alone in the world and has developed some sort of friendship with Rolf. They are, at least, a little too young for any lovey-doveyness.
Just before the end credits, 2 chilling statistics are displayed: currently, 82 million people are refugees, and 34 million of these are children. In case we weren’t clear already, this is not just a story about something in the past, but a film which begs our empathy. I wasn’t expecting too much when I went to see it, but thought that it at least the subject matter meant that It could be interesting. I was way too pessimistic. Well worth a visit.