Published nearly 50 years ago, Judith Kerr's novel about a family fleeing Nazi Germany was adapted into a film directed by Caroline Link. The book touched readers of all ages, but is the movie suitable for adults?
Anna (Riva Krymalowski) is on the verge of tears. Her parents will only allow her to take one single stuffed toy with her to Switzerland. Should she pick her beloved pink rabbit or her oldest stuffed animal, the one she's had since her earliest childhood? With a heavy heart, the nine-year-old finally decides to leave her rabbit behind in Berlin.
From then on, the rabbit dominates Anna's thoughts, as her family flees the Nazis via Zurich, and then Paris, to finally land in London.
Many people are familiar with this scene, having read it in Judith Kerr's well-known 1971 novel for children, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. The semi-autobiographical book was not only required reading in many schools in Germany, it was also read by many adults.
It was originally published in English, and came out two years later in German, translated by Annemarie Böll, the wife of Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll.
The novel had already been adapted into a German TV movie in 1978; now, almost half a century later, a new adaptation has been made for the big screen.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit celebrated its world premiere in Berlin on Sunday, and will be released throughout Germany on December 26. The film was directed by Caroline Link, best-known for her Oscar-winning film, Nowhere in Africa (2001). In 2018, she also released Germany's No. 1 hit comedy of the year, The Boy Needs Some Fresh Air, also titled All About Me.
A family's escape from the Nazis
The story takes off just before Germany's elections of March 1933, which are to bring the Nazis to power. Anna lives with her parents (played by Carla Juri and Oliver Masucci) and her older brother (Marinus Hohmann) in Berlin. Her father is a renowned journalist who has published articles criticizing Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
Anna's father is also aware that the family is in danger because they are Jewish. They quickly decide to flee to Switzerland, leaving with only with a few suitcases. The film then follows the family's exile through Europe.
Judith Kerr used the left-behind pink rabbit as a literary metaphor for the loss of her home and leaving behind her childhood memories in difficult times.
Caroline Link recalls being surprised by the lightness of the story when she read the novel in her youth: "It was a story about expulsion and escape from Nazi Germany, and yet the tone was optimistic, almost carefree." A book — and now a film — about National Socialism, anti-Semitism and forced exile with an "optimistic tone" — is that even possible?
Kerr wrote her book expressly for children, telling the story through the perspective of a child. She felt strongly about allowing young readers to learn about the era. That worked well; her book has since sold over a million copies.
Kerr, who died in May, said that "she kept mostly positive memories of her years in Switzerland and Paris; for her and her brother, it felt like an adventure," Link pointed out.
The filmmaker liked the fact that the story was told from the point of view of a 9-year-old. "Children do not need to be afraid of this story," she said. "It's not cruel or horrible, but rather, has many positive aspects despite all the melancholy through the fact that Anna and her family lose their home, their prosperity and their native language because of a sudden change in politics."
Introducing children to a difficult chapter of history
Caroline Link has often succeeded with her films in addressing complex issues through emotional, yet never syrupy, storytelling. That's also what she aimed to achieve with her film version of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.
"I've always been very touched by the way Anna courageously tackles the journey of finding her way in a new life," said Link. "We experience the discrimination against this family and their increasing poverty, but also the feeling of security provided by the parents and the intellectual support of the father, who always reminds his children that if you only complain about what you've lost, you'll miss out on the new and the good aspects brought about by any change."
The film mainly avoids the horrible images and events of the era, which may be the right approach for children — but that might also leave older movie-goers with a feeling of discomfort.
An apolitical view of a dark era
An early reaction by the monthly Jüdische Rundschau summarizes it well: The film adaptation of Kerr's book is "decidedly apolitical" and "that doesn't do justice to its background."
The film's distributor is marketing When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit as "a Christmas film for the entire family." A film about expulsion, anti-Semitism and xenophobia as a "Christmas movie"? That feels chillingly inappropriate.
"The story is constantly underscored by dramatic and touching music, which creates an altogether comfortable atmosphere [...] and, together with the beautiful shots of Swiss mountains and urban Paris, it aims to be a cozy Christmas family film," the Jüdische Rundschau added. "This may be appropriate for this season, but not for the historical context of the story, which is so brutal and ugly..."