VENICE, Italy (AP) — A piece of family history led German director Rick Ostermann to revisit some long-forgotten victims of the chaos immediately following World War II: German children, who lost their parents, struggling to survive in formerly German lands then occupied by Russia.
Ostermann says the stories of the so-called wolf children are a piece of history that has been little discussed in postwar Germany, but that his generation is now interested in looking at the past from a different angle, including at Germans’ suffering. He cited a recent TV series, “Our Mothers, Our Fathers,” which explored the role of ordinary Germans during the war.
“I know that Germany caused all of this, this war and everything. This is not the point. We know it and it’s really, really dramatic. I think we can look at other things that happened during and after the war,” Ostermann said in an interview last week before the premiere of his film, “Wolfskinder” out of the main competition at the Venice Film Festival.
Ostermann was inspired by his mother’s evacuation with her family from East Prussia to Luebeck following World War II, when she was just 5, to discover the stories of children who had been less fortunate. Because the phenomenon is relatively unknown, Ostermann said preparing the script required a long period of research, including interviews with wolf children, whose stories for decades had been ignored.
“They told me all of the bad things that happened, and they were really bad, bad. But they said, ‘There were always situation where we were kids, because we were kids,’” Ostermann said. “The kids are very hard and cruel. They have to survive, and are going to kill each other in some situations and they kill animals because they have to survive. On the other hand, they are still kids, they play around.”
“Wolfskinder” follows the story of two brothers, Hans and Fritzchen, whose mother’s dying wish is that the children go to Lithuania, which is more sympathetic to Germans, and ask to be taken in by a farmer’s family they know. The brothers must scrounge for food and hide from Russian soldiers, who hunt the unattended, stray German children down with vengeance for Germany’s role in starting a war that killed millions of Russians. Hans, the older but less-capable brother, loses Fritzchen when they come under fire from Russians, and he joins a small band of other German children as he tries to find his brother.
For Ostermann, nature was another protagonist in the film, the place where the children could find moments of childhood, sticking out blueberry-stained tongues and plunging into lakes. “Nature was their new home,” Ostermann said. “It was where they got their food, and where nothing happened to them.”
Nature also gives the film its pace. Cinematographer Leah Striker provides both sweeping scenes of nature, at times reminiscent of early Terrence Malick, and close-ups reflecting a child’s view. The film was largely shot on location in Lithuania, where many of the wolf children remained.
“We took very short lenses, so anytime we wanted to see something, we had to be close up, we went there,” Striker told a news conference. “We took quite wide lenses to show how small these children actually are. We wanted to constantly feel the sense of there being no deliverance.”