Run Boy Run (Lauf Junge Lauf): Rome Review

Alice nella Cita/Festival di Roma
A largely effective but never surprising adaptation of an Israeli bestseller about a child's survival in wartime Poland.

German director Pepe Danquart films Uri Orlev's novel about an 8-year-old Jewish boy who escapes from the Warsaw ghetto during WWII and has to survive on his own.

ROME – An intrepid 8-year-old Jewish kid from the Warsaw ghetto has to fend for himself during much of WWII in Run Boy Run (Lauf Junge Lauf), an adaptation of the bestselling children’s book by Israeli author Uri Orlev from German director Pepe Danquart. The film is so old-fashioned, it seems to suggest that the director’s mere nationality is so shocking that everything else had to be played as safe as possible.

Opening in 1942, the straightforwardly told tale follows Srulik, who’s rebaptized as Jurek so he can pass as a Polish boy orphaned by the war, as he escapes from Warsaw, lives in the forest with other Jewish kids until winter finally sets in and he has to travel from farm to farm, hoping to be taken in and fed by locals in exchange for handiwork. There’s nothing new or revelatory here, though the acting is good and the episodic Franco-German co-production’s $8.1 million budget is all up there on screen.

Jewish festivals and older audiences are natural fits for this proper -- and properly academic -- work, which will open commercially in Poland in January and in Germany in April.

Gap-toothed Srulik (played by Andrzej and Kamil Tkacz) manages to leave the Warsaw ghetto unseen and is told by his father to hide but “never forget” he’s a Jew. After an almost careless-seeming summer hiding out in the forest with other Jewish kids with whom he goes on occasional food raids at nearby farms, Srulik finds himself alone in the depth of winter. Magda (Elisabeth Duda), a kind farmer’s wife, finally takes him in and helps him transform into Jurek, a good Christian boy who ostentatiously wears his crucifix and loudly recites his prayers and whose greetings to strangers invariably invoke Jesus.

Eventually, the SS come snooping around and Magda sends the boy on his way. He ends up knocking on every farm door in the hope of being taken in. When he’s maltreated, he leaves, though occasionally his careless causes him trouble too, as when he participates in a pissing contest and the other farm boys realize he’s circumcised.
In the summer of 1943, he befriends a dog and is later captured by the SS, though he’s resourceful enough to escape – unfortunately, to the tune of French composer Stephane Moucha’s rather generic orchestral score, which starts with some light fiddles before growing more serious as the film progresses.

An accident with heavy farming equipment results in the loss of Jurek’s arm and a stay at the hospital, where a surgeon refuses to treat him because he’s Jewish. And thus the film continues, through 1944 and, eventually, 1945. An astonishing, late-reel montage sequence shows how little Jurek, along the way, manages to fine-tune his sob story of losing his parents and his arm to squeeze more compassion and better food out of a succession of host families, until it becomes Hitler himself who hacked Jurek’s arm off.

Though this might at first seem somewhat absurd, perhaps even trivializing the hardships of war, these scenes are necessary to underline that Jurek/Srulik is indeed a child before anything else, and thankfully Danquart, who won an Oscar for his 1993 short Dark Rider, doesn’t turn every woman in the story into a potential mother figure, instead offering up a gallery of men and women who all react in their own way to the absurdities and atrocities of war.

The Tkacz brothers hold the screen with ease and the supporting players are all fine but don’t have a lot of time to fill in their bit roles. The notable exception is Duda, who gets an impressive, teary-eyed scene after her house is burnt down by the Nazis and she has to tell Jurek, who’d been hiding in the basement, that it’s not his fault but he still has to leave. It’s only really in this scene that Danquart manages to suggest that the war caused impossible predicaments for adults, a question largely glossed over because most of the film sticks to a more innocent point-of-view close to its protagonist, for whom only his own survival counts.

Cinematographer Daniel Gottschalk (Krabat: The Satanic Mill) and production designer Matthias Muesse (who earlier evoked the Nazi-period in the boarding school drama Napola) deliver work that’s very much in step with the film’s direction in that it’s solid but not exactly outside-the-box.  

Venue: Rome Film Festival (Alice in the City)
Production companies: Bittersuess Pictures, Cine-Sud Promotion, A Company Filmproduktion, B.A. Produktion, Quinte Film 

Cast: Andrzej Tkacz, Kamil Tkacz, Elisabeth Duda, Jeanette Hain, Itay Tiran, Katarzyna Bargielowska
Director: Pepe Danquart
Screenwriter: Heinrich Hadding, based on the novel by Uri Orlev

Producers: Susa Kusche, Uwe Spiller, Pepe Danquart 

Co-producers: Alexander van Duelmen, Hanneke van der Tas, Thierry Lenouvel, Antonio Exacoustos, Mirjam Quinte 

Director of photography: Daniel Gottschalk

Production designer: Matthias Muesse

Music: Stephane Moucha

Costume designer: Gioia Raspe

Editor: Richard Marizy

Sales: Radiant Films International

No rating, 107 minutes.

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