Musical prodigies play for keeps in wartime Wunderkinder

The curtain rises on the riveting, roller-coaster drama “Wunderkinder” (Child Prodigies) in a present-day concert hall with a white-haired violinist rehearsing for her recital.

The arrival of a surprise visitor catapults Hanna Reich, and us, back to 1941 and Poltava, Ukraine, where two gifted children play a marvelous violin and piano duet for an audience of Soviet authorities and local bigwigs. The stage is set for a familiar wartime saga glossed with classical music, but German writer-director Markus Rosenmuller delivers much more.

For starters, the title simultaneously manages to be accurate and misleading. Abrascha Kaplan (Elin Kolev) and Larissa Brodsky (Imogen Burrell), the well-coached, well-scrubbed performers, are prodigious talents. But as the war plays havoc with their ambitions — and lives — the way in which they are different from other children matters less to us than the ways they are the same.

Prodigies (from left) Abrascha (Elin Kolev), Hanna (Mathilda Adamik) and Larissa (Imogen Burrell) carry the drama “Wunkerkinder.”

Up to a point, that is. Larissa and Abrascha are Jewish, which becomes a big deal after Hitler shockingly and ruthlessly voids the nonaggression pact he’d signed with Stalin. To the invading Nazis and some of the Ukrainians, the children’s ethnicity is their defining characteristic.

That said, another filmmaker might rely on Abrascha and Larissa’s artistic ability to compel us with their plight and root against potential tragedy. Rosenmuller’s underlying theme, expressed without a single line of dialogue, is that every child is promising, and innocent, and war’s greatest horror is that the casualties include children.

“Wunderkinder” screens March 17 in the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival.

While Jewish viewers will identify with Larissa and Abrascha, it’s a strong-willed German girl, Hanna, who propels the movie in key early sequences. Though not as accomplished musically as the other two children, she succeeds in pushing her way into their friendship.

Hanna’s father is a former Olympic skier dispatched by a Berlin brewery to open and run its lucrative Poltava operation; her mother is an enthusiastic Hitler supporter. The Reichs (an apt name for geographical interlopers) get on fine with the Ukrainians until the German attack makes them instant enemies.

The Brodskys and Kaplans come to their rescue, ferreting them from one hiding place to another. When the Nazis arrive and occupy Poltava, the Reichs are returned to their comfortable former status. Soon  it is their turn to intercede on behalf of their Jewish friends.

The Nazis possess a deranged sense of culture and art filtered through unthinking anti-Semitism, embodied by the SS officer who rules with a loathsome smugness. The gulf between civilization and barbarism, a recurring theme in countless war movies, ultimately plays out in the cruelest fashion imaginable.

“Wunderkinder” provides a vivid and revealing sense of the powerlessness of ordinary people, especially Jews, to negotiate the whipsaw turn of events there in the early years of World War II. The film avoids the usual portrayal of all Ukrainians as anti-Semitic opportunists, instead depicting some characters as kind and others as complying out of fear of their new Nazi overlords.

 “Wunderkinder” also eschews the winsome movie cliché that art can bridge ethnic or national divides. The most bracing character in the film is music teacher Irina Salomonowa (Gudrun Landgrebe), whose passion for liberty and justice surpasses even her dedication to musical excellence and her students.

One imagines that Hanna Reich carried Irina’s inspiration, among others, to every performance of her career.

screens 7 p.m. March 17 at the Orinda Theatre. In German with subtitles. (Not rated, 96 minutes)