When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit has plenty of heart and restraint, but viewers will likely wish for a bit more ambition.
Based on the semi-autobiographical children’s book of the same name, Caroline Link’s adaptation of Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit tells a story that might, from the outside, look like a happy one. The Kempers, a middle-class Jewish family, flee Germany mere days before Hitler is able to form a coalition and seize power, escaping persecution by the skin of their teeth. However, the life of a refugee is rarely simple, and as the Nazi regime unfurls across Europe, the Kempers must constantly uproot themselves, living in Zurich, Paris, and eventually England. Centered largely around the family’s young daughter, Anna (a stand-in for Kerr herself), the film offers a look into the day-to-day experience of a young refugee, trying to create a home for herself and make it fit against a range of backdrops that only have one thing of any importance in common: they all just aren’t home.
While the film’s greatest strength is certainly found in the nuanced, understated performances of its child actors — particularly those of Riva Krymalowski and Marinus Hohmann as the Kemper children, the two of whom carry the film’s emotional core — Link never fully leans into their perspectives, darting away at times to follow Anna’s parents and stopping short of adding much depth to her relationships. The result is a film that, despite purportedly being about children’s experiences, doesn’t seem to have any new youthful insights to offer. There are some gorgeous, poignant moments conjured throughout, such as Anna’s quiet rituals of saying goodbye to the objects and places that she cobbles together to form some semblance of a home, but even these only scan as scratching the surface of a far richer story. Link’s restraint does meld well with her chosen settings, from comfortable, cosmopolitan Berlin to the idyllic Swiss countryside to the more impoverished corners of Paris, emphasizing Anna’s experience over any grand or showy allusions to history, but by never fully committing to Anna’s perspective, Link fails to reap the full benefits of either tack. Likewise, the director’s subtle hand with nuanced topics like Jewish atheism or the pervasive European anti-Semitism is admirable, but the approach means she falls short of striking any significant emotional chord.
There’s rich, unexplored territory ripe for study here; the premise of a child’s unique experience as a political refugee isn’t a common cinematic narrative, and there’s real potential here to bring something new to the epic canon of World War II cinema, and so it rankles that Link doesn’t do anything more interesting with her source material. Ultimately, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is an example of a film that ticks most of the right boxes, but it just isn’t all that memorable outside of the specificity of its premise and a winning lead performance. There’s no denying the film has a lot of heart, but it will likely leave audiences wishing it had a bit more ambition too.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | May 2021.