Janni Schenk is a German boy of about 14 whose family are dead. Displaced to a rural village he brings with him his injured cat, his hobby repairing radios and his love of both the Hitler Youth movement he was conscripted into and Swing music introduced to him by his aunt Hannah, who adopts him. His story moves between Hamburg, the last day of his war in the mountain village of Fall and the present day in England, where he lives as an old man. Every incident in this screenplay happened. Otto Horst was a real person who saved the lives of the Hitler Youth Boys. Janni Schenck told me his story first hand, although I never knew his real name. Every time I thought of him Janni’s name came to me. Recently I found that Christa Schroeder, one of Hitler’s secretaries, was employed after the war by a Herr Schenk, in pretty much the same area where this story is set, southwest Germany, in April 1945. Otto Bachler was also a real person, although a surgeon, not an accountant. He made a joke about Hitler and was to be executed when partisans attacked. He walked from Romania to Bremen and saw the destruction of Dresden on the way. He lived to a ripe old age as a doctor in West Germany. His grand-daughter showed me his surgical needles and told me his story.
Every musical detail is accurate, including the edict about the rules for Swing tunes. This is not a normal war story. Some people may find Janni not very likeable. I think he is a normal boy of his age and background. Above all else, he was a victim. He was fooled into thinking the drums and flags and songs and guns were a noble cause. He was fooled by the SS into trying to save his village, which would have cost him his life while they got away to live in comfort. Finally Janni was betrayed by the man who saved his life, necessarily, the schoolteacher and head of the Hitler Youth troop who he had trusted implicitly.
Janni’s aunt is reunited with her husband who she thought was dead. Janni and the schoolmaster survive. The fervent Nazi dies, along with Otto who was only trying to get home. Swing music makes the Americans pause long enough to decide not to destroy the village. And Janni’s music, the Swing music that got him through, that survived too, as the soundtrack for both sides. But the songs of the Hitler Youth, their pledge of loyalty to the father of their new nation were all a lie. Their fatherland was abusive. The dream was sour. But even from the hatefulness of that premise, life went on. Janni and Germany made things better, for everyone. Things can change. Good will come. It’s just that sometimes you can’t see when or how.