The plot summary (spoiler alert!): The film is set in Nazi Germany in the year 1942. Marianne Meissner realizes her young son, Heinrich, ran away. We presume that he likely believed his mother's white lie she told him the previous evening, namely, that the neighbors (the Silbersteins) are going on a trip to "toy land." The reality: Marianne refuses to tell her son that the Jewish neighbors are to be deported the following morning. In panic and fearing that Heinrich might be put on a train to a KZ, she rushes to the train station, convinces Nazi officials to search for the Silbersteins on a train scheduled for deportation, and, in a decisive moment, pulls another boy from the train. In this scene, which forms the emotional and narrative focal point of the film, Marianne sees the Silbersteins' son on the cart and calls out "Heinrich," deceiving the Nazi officials and saving the Jewish boy from certain death, while (perhaps) being sure that her own son found his way to safety.
I won't go into the cinematic-narrative complexities here. For an excellent interpretation of the film see Erin McGlothlin's article "Rewriting the Fantasy of the "Wrong" Victim in Jochen Alexander Freydank's Spielzeugland," New German Critique 41.3 (2015): 113-134. Instead I will show how the film can serve as starting point in a third-semester unit aimed at helping students learn ways to communicate complex (auto)biographical narratives. What follows is material that easily fits into a 50 minute lesson.
The central relationship depicted in the film, that between Marianne and Heinrich, is also central for the film poster used for distribution. The lesson began with the poster enlarged on a PPT. I asked students to consider the title on the slide, asking for associations they could make about the individual words and then the compound itself. I then asked students to describe the figures shown in the poster: Welche Figuren sehen Sie im Poster? Was für eine Beziehung haben die Figuren? Wer ist nicht im Bild?
Students were able to answer these brief questions without a problem, pointing out that there will be a central tension between the mother and son. Because the poster served as warm-up exercise, I had no intentions to tell students anything more about the content of the film. Instead I presented students facts about the film (i.e., year, director, awards), which were also included in a handout I had distributed at the beginning of the lesson.
With this information, students already had a good sense of what to expect from the film in terms of key players and the central conflict that somehow relates to them. I then showed the film in class (the entire film runs ca. 13 min.).
After the film, I asked students briefly who the central characters were, what their names were, what their relationships were to one another. This set of questions was also included on the handout. With a better sense of who the main figures were, I transitioned into an activity that introduces and helps students practice a language structure scheduled for that day. Instead of working on the language structure in isolated fashion, I tied the exercise to the story world of the film and the broader theme of our class and this unit specifically: communicating (auto)biographic narratives.
In conjunction with the section "Verbs with Fixed Prepositions" in Chapter 12 of Deutsch: Na klar!, the exercise asked students to summarize the plot of the film using collocations "sich Ärgern über," "sich freuen auf," "verzichten auf." The cluster of phrases offered in the textbook lend itself well to summarize a film about characters whose relationships to one another are tempered by miscommunication and momentary dissatisfaction.
I briefly summarized for students that, in order to use these phrases, one has to consider that some verbs require to be paired with certain prepositions, that these are very useful to communicate affect. The task was: I listed about 8 different phrases and told students to use about 5 of them to summarize the basic plot of the film, filling a void between sentences should scenes be in the film that cannot be easily summarized using these constructions.
My task was to walk around the room, consulting with students (who worked in pairs on this exercise), and pointing out linguistic nuance where necessary--for instance, reminding students that most of the compounds require the object that follows them to be in the accusative case, and that only a handful require dative.
The lesson was wrapped up with a recall: what is going on in the film? This gave students to present their summary. The great thing: not all of them used the collocations to summarize the same scenes, which allowed us to repeat the collocation and get a better sense of the plot of the film.
Notably, the interpretation of the film was kept on the impressionistic level, but the goal of the lesson was not deep interpretation of the film. The goal was to expose students to an authentic German text, one whose story world formed an authentic referent for the remaining linguistic work that we did in the class.