Wolf Children: Venice Review

Levin Liam
An honorably intentioned drama inspired by a WWII footnote that lacks the clarity to achieve its full wrenching impact.

Rick Ostermann's first feature is based on the flight of German and Baltic children from Soviet-occupied East Prussia at the end of World War II.

VENICE -- More captivating for its atmospheric visuals than its poorly contextualized plot, Rick Ostermann’s Wolf Children (Wolfskinder) follows a group of orphaned urchins in the wake of World War II as they flee what was then Soviet-occupied East Prussia to seek refuge in Lithuania. The film’s narrative similarities to Cate Shortland’s Lore from last year will likely work against it, as will its somewhat strained lyricism. But the grimly expressive faces of its young characters and the German writer-director’s skill at exploring the ways in which they adapt to nature help compensate for the wobbly storytelling.

The film’s chief distinction is the beauty of its settings. The dense woodlands and reedy swamps conjure evocative fairy-tale associations of children facing violence and peril, adding darkly enchanted dimensions to a drama of grim realism rooted in sobering 20th century history.

But Ostermann’s film plants the nagging sensation that the more compelling story is happening someplace else. After establishing an intriguing bond between siblings Hans (Levin Liam) and Fritz (Patrick Lorenczat) in which the traditional roles of older and younger brother are reversed, the director then sidelines the more interesting of the two kids for most of the movie.

PHOTOS: Venice Film Festival: 42 Movies to Know

While 12-year-old Hans hangs back in terror, 9-year-old Fritz fearlessly steals a soldier’s gun and horse, then leads the docile animal into an abandoned church and shoots it without blinking an eye. Hans looks on in stunned silence as his brother carves a slab of meat from the dead horse’s belly and then cooks it on the fire at the hideout where the boys’ mother (Jordis Triebel) lays dying. She instructs her sons to go to Lithuania and ask the couple on a farm where they once stayed to take them in.

It’s an arresting opening, and Fritz’s steely pragmatism, even in the face of losing a parent, makes him a promising protagonist. But as they scramble with a handful of other German and Baltic children in similar plights to cross a river while dodging Red Army gunfire, the brothers are separated.

The focus then shifts to the more emotional Hans, tormented over his failure to honor his mother’s wish that the boys should stick together at any cost. His anguish causes him to step back and allow a girl his age, Christel (Helena Phil), to serve as the group’s leader for a time, her maternal instincts providing comfort to the two younger kids traveling with them, Asta (Vivien Ciskowski) and Karl (Willow Voges-Fernandes). But as they encounter fresh dangers punctuated by moments of reprieve, Hans struggles with the choice between protecting the group and ensuring his own survival.

PHOTOS: The Scene at the Venice Film Festival

There’s undeniable dramatic traction in any story that places innocent children in life-or-death situations, weakened by fatigue, hunger, illness or injury and sometimes forced to commit acts of brutality. Ostermann’s observation of the ways in which their environment changes them, bringing out surprising resilience and compassion, is often quite touching.

But while Wolf Children is not without poignant moments, the director gets a little too bewitched by all the gorgeous images of nature. He seems more preoccupied with dreamy interludes and artsy flourishes than with bringing dramatic cohesiveness or tension to the kids’ odyssey. The developments of the closing scenes, while melancholy and unsettling, reinforce the feeling that we’ve been denied access to the real story here, which is that of resourceful Fritz.

Among the positives, however, cinematographer Leah Striker’s work shows an assured sense of composition, and the melancholy score is used with pleasing economy. The young cast all appear entirely unselfconscious in their roles; first-time actor Liam as Hans is especially convincing, conveying the haunted quality of a child forced to absorb horrors that no child should endure.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)

Cast: Levin Liam, Helena Phil, Vivien Ciskowski, Patrick Lorenczat, Willow Voges-Fernandes, Til-Niklas Theinert, Jordis Triebel

Production company: Zum Goldenen Lamm Film, HR, Arte

Director-screenwriter: Rick Ostermann

Producers: Rudiger Heinze, Stefan Sporbert

Executive producer: Monika Kintner

Director of photography: Leah Striker

Production designer: Vilius Vanagas

Music: Christoph M. Kaiser, Julian Mass

Editor: Stephan Blau

Costume designer: Esther Walz

No rating, 96 minutes