Kinder is German for children and the children in this stark, but striking black and white documentary are young boys who are spending their formative years in a group home for boys. Director Bettina Büttner, who attended Thursday night’s screening at the Goethe Institute, was a student when she filmed it. That is incredible as it is filled with moments of astute direction that belies her experience. She seems to have very sharp instincts as to how to tell her story and when to back out and let things unravel as they may. Her light touch is everywhere, but does not impose itself or hamper the story.
The story is at times a difficult one as her subjects are 9 and 10-years-old and sometimes even younger. Several scenes filled with difficult and heightened emotional moments are hard to watch. For instance, I, myself, did not know what to think about the opening scene involving two 10-year-olds. Tommy and Marvin are both almost boasting about their knowledge of weaponry. They describe several types of guns or weapons and then even what kind of damage they can inflict. It is made even more shocking as they are having this discussion while playing with Legos. A typical childhood game peppered with a violence based “chat”. Where are the innocent times for these young boys? Tommy even goes as far as describing the gas chambers that were used on Jews by the Nazis during World War II. Are they just ignorant about the harm these weapons can have or is violence a “normal” part of their lives?
Each different section or scene in the documentary gave the viewer something to think about. Whether it was the opening one or the one where an educator at the home was trying to give some advice to an obviously upset, angry and exasperated Marvin. Marvin is a pudgy young boy and he is teased and picked on because of it. He usually responds to this with anger. The educator is trying to reason with him that this type of response is feeding into the bullies and just makes them tease him all the more. Back and forth goes the discussion with Marvin crying at times saying he does not want to go back and that he has no friends. He sees his solution as sitting in his room and playing video games. Sad!
Shocking for an entirely different reason is a scene of 9-year-old fair haired Dennis lying in his bed. Suddenly, while giggling the whole time, he begins to simulate having sex with his comforter while saying “Sexy lady”. It’s obvious that he has seen some pornographic material and is trying to copy it. He doesn’t completely understand what he is doing and yet is not quite as innocent as most 9-year-olds either.
Definitely the scenes that left the biggest impression on me where those shot at Marvin’s house with his sister and mother. There are innocent ones of him playing with his sister and then there is another where is mother physically has to restrain him as he is ripping up the back yard, including hanging laundry and flowers, in anger. The duration of his anger is shocking. Then when the following scene is his mother in a monologue looking into the camera saying she doesn’t know why Marvin is so angry. That she knows that he is upset because his father left them and then alludes to some abuse that might have gone on that she feels guilty about, but is a woman at her wits end when it comes to her son. She wants to be a good mother for her son, who is obviously suffering, but doesn’t know how.
Your heart will break several times during the film. But you will also find yourself with a smile on your face as well because it is kids behaving like kids. They are unpredictable and don’t often sensor themselves. It is a pure film, if not always innocent. And Büttner does not give you many answers or try to lead you towards her way of thinking. The beauty of the film is that, like life, there is rarely one answer and many contributing factors to the kids’ behaviours. With such maturity so early in her career I do hope she continues making films.