Wolfgang Hohlbein is one of Germany’s most prolific authors of pulp fantasy novels. And by pulp I refer to the niche in the market, not the way they are published. Only his earliest work appeared in penny dreadful magazines (as do many other pulp fantasy stories in Germany). Nowadays his novels appear as bonafide paperbacks. His wife Heike is often credited in these works as co-author. I am not familiar with Hohlbein’s work, but it is my understanding that only very few stories include vampires.
Despite having sold around 43 million books and being translated into several languages, Wolfgang Hohlbein has very few of his works seen translated into English – a curios situation he shares with other German pulp authors.
Since 1985, Hohlbein has written the occasional book for children as well, including at least six instalments in the Wolf-Gäng franchise – some of them in collaboration with his daughter Rebecca, some of them in collaboration with his friend Dieter Winkler. Naturally, the double-meaning of the franchise’s name is no coincidence.
Exactly why this franchise has been picked to be adapted for the silver screen is a mystery to me. I had never heard of it, and I am not sure it is generally well-known.
But let’s get to the film, which premiered in German and Austrian cinemas on the 23rd and 24th of January respectively.
An opening narration tells us that – over the course of the centuries – the wild creatures of the night got more peaceful and civilised. They settled down and are now indistinguishable from the humans amongst whom they live. There are a number of these peaceful creatures, however, who do not live in the human cities but in far-away country towns hidden in magic forests.
We see a hearse-like car trying to slowly make its way through the forest to reach Crailsfelden, one of these country towns. 13-year old Vlad and his father are moving to the town after receiving a special invitation which included a place for Vlad at a very prestigious school.
Vlad, as you may have guessed, is a vampire, as is his father. Vlad’s mother was a powerful witch, but she died in an accident when he was very young. While his father is trying to establish a store for antique collectibles, Vlad is facing the prospect of being the new kid in school. At the imminent start of the new term, 7th-graders like Vlad take part in a ceremony where they will inherit and embrace their supernatural heritage. Think of it as paranormal puberty, taking all but twenty seconds.
The two people who Vlad will strike up a friendship with are Faye (whose parents are fairies) and Wolf (whose parents are… well, I guess you see the pattern). A few mysterious incidents happen. And certain parties are showing a keen interest in a gemstone Vlad has inherited from his mother. And the three friends will have to face their fears and insecurities in order to prevail against the forces of darkness…
…etc., etc., … – you know the drill. It is not like children’s films are particularly inventive in their plots, or subtle in their messages.
The one thing you immediately notice when watching this film is how gorgeous it looks. Usually, German children films cut a lot of corners when it comes to sets, props, and visual effects. After all, “it’s only for children”. Die Wolf-Gäng however, which was produced by a German company called Rat Pack and is distributed by Sony, looks neat and presents a visually rich world that easily rivals Hollywood productions. The special effects were made by Mackevision, a German company I had never heard of. Apparently, they once received an Emmy for their work on the fourth season of Game of Thrones.
The world-building is also neat. Crailsfelden is meant to be a town hundreds of years old and full of old buildings. Its people live in the here-and-now, but as the town is so closed off from the outside world many people still wear 1950s clothes and drive 1950s cars. For filming the town, the main location chosen was Alsfeld (Hesse), with other locations chosen to supplement the building portfolio are also all situated in the German state of Hesse: Marburg, Braunfels, Lauterbach, Büdingen, and Hanau. If you google for pictures of these six cities, you will immediately see why they were chosen.
While many of the buildings are real, and some are purpose-built backdrops, at least two buildings in this film have been created (or altered) digitally. They look gorgeous as well, but when they are inserted into the real footage they do not blend in 100% perfectly. But it is just good enough for my taste and unlikely to be an issue once the film starts its second life on TV screens. This is the only imperfection I could spot in the film’s entire CG department.
The cast is very good and the acting is mostly solid. The three teenagers who play our heroic trio do a very fine job. The two boys, Aaron Kissiov (Vlad) and Arsseni Bultmann (Wolf) are already seasoned actors, while Johanna Schraml, who plays Faye, is a newcomer. The adult roles are all filled by known German actors, such as Waldemar Kobus, with the two most famous faces belonging to Rick Kavanian (Vlad’s dad) and Christian Berkel (the mayor). Everyone does a good job, but I believe Kavanian may have been miscast here. This film employs some light-hearted comedy, and Kavanian seems to have problems to distance his comedic moments from the more surreal type of performance his comedy is generally known for. It gives Vlad’s dad an insincere vibe that is unwarranted. Axel Stein, on the other hand, who plays the school’s janitor, is more unsuccessful in adapting his comedy to the needs of the film. The person whose performance feels most jarring is that of Sonja Gerhardt as the mayor’s secretary. She is cackling and hamming her way through this film in a performance that would fit a film or stage play aimed at much younger children – or even a British Christmas panto. I doubt this is her fault; it would have been the job of director Tim Trageser to steer her in the right direction in terms of tone. By coincidence, her costume is also the only one in the film (as far as major characters are concerned) that looks as cheap and fake as you are used to from older German kids films – which augments the feeling that her acting is from a different film entirely.
As I said, the film looks generally great. But in terms of fantasy it often stays too grounded for its own good. The afore-mentioned school ceremony for 7th-graders, for example, has a number of elements that will remind you of the festive of official events taking place in the great dining hall in the Harry Potter films. But while this moment in Die Wolf-Gäng is “magic”, it is also somewhat “uncinematic”, small, and definitely mundane. It is as if it was meant to resemble a normal school assembly as much as possible, to keep in line with the idea that this town, while secluded, it still part of the real world. Many other magic moments feel “small” as well. But what feels especially small are the challenges faced by our protagonist and his friends. This is not some epic quest, nothing that ever manages to create the tension of – for example – the chess game scene in Harry Potter. Whenever it comes to magic moments, scary moments, or challenging adventures, it feels a bit like the film deliberately applies the handbrake.
By the way, it is no coincidence that I have just mentioned Harry Potter twice. Die Wolf-Gäng has many allusions the mother of all children’s franchises. The three school bullies we meet, for example, are carbon copies of Draco Malfoy and his friends. And it is hardly a coincidence that the font used for the credits resembles those from Harry Potter or similar supernatural children’s films like Nanny McPhee or Molly Moon. For the sake of balance, there is also an “homage” to Marvel’s Hulk.
The film is entertaining and its plot is trotting along nicely at an appropriate pace, but it never manages to build a genuine arc of suspense. That may have something to do with the general writing, but I feel it has more to do with the “applied handbrake” in may scenes. This is also the case in the final showdown which feels “smaller” than what you would have hoped for.
Other, minor shortcomings of the films include coincidences and plot conveniences, as well as the fact that the friendship between our three heroes is simply “happening” and not organically developed. There is also the lack of subtlety that one finds so often in kids films. For example: Die Wolf-Gäng has a number of nice background gags, but half the time specifically calls them out because someone apparently thought it would be a shame should anyone miss the joke. There is even a joke that is explained while it is still happening.
Finally, while the score is adequate, the two songs written for the film were getting on my nerves. The one by Caroline von Brünken (“Du bist wie ich”), which is played briefly in the beginning and then throughout the end credits, is some sort of hard to describe electro-soul concoction that made my ears bleed. The other, by Sascha Seelemann (“Gäng für die Ewigkeit”) is played at the very end of the third act. It is the kind of German R&B-pop that I already hated 20 years ago when it was actually new. Both songs have their fans, I am sure, but I assume that the studio chose them to appear “hip” while ignoring that these songs are probably not reaching the film’s target audience (which I believe to be in the difficult pre-teen market (9-12 years)).
Now, you may be asking why I am writing all these things no-one cares about and am not talking about vampires? Well, although Vlad is the film’s protagonist and more or less the only major character, aspects of vampirism play only a minor role in this film and very little screen time is devoted to them. Vampires have no reflection, we learn, and do not turn up on video. We can see that they can be incredibly fast if they want to. And they also have bat-like sonar capabilities. This is actually the only talent that is really put to use in this film, even though Vlad’s father merely uses it to try and get his car into a narrow parking space. This is a young teenage team-up story, with the usual messages about friendship, about believing in yourself, etc. – the supernatural heritage of the protagonist and his friends is of secondary importance for the filmmakers and for the story they want to tell.
The film ends on a coda that foreshadows new dangers – a crystal-clear sign that the studio is hoping to turn this into a profitable franchise with many a sequel. There is also a mildly-humorous post-credit scene.
In the end, I found the film entertaining but also underwhelming. I love the world-building and the way this film looks; but I am wondering if you could keep children glued to the screen once this film is released on DVD, or if they’d start reaching for the remote. I am also wondering if this material would not have been better served if it had been turned into a TV series – but of course we then could not have any CGI nearly as great as we have in this film.
I guess that I will rate this children’s film at 6.5 to 7.0 out of 10. It is superior the first Vampirschwestern film, but only very slightly superior to the second. But it definitely has the more exciting visual aspects. Like that other franchise, Die Wolf-Gäng is unlikely to become available in many international markets. But maybe it’ll show up at children’s film festivals with English subtitles or something.