‘Misha and the Wolves’ Review: An Extraordinary Holocaust Survival Story. Or Not
Ever since “Man on Wire,” in 2008, more and more documentaries have been using visualizations, staged scenes, and other illustrative methods that are meant to bring a true story to life but, to my mind, often end up getting in the way of it. I tend to prefer my documentaries without a speck of cereal, and that made the early sections of “Misha and the Wolves” seem a bit of a challenge. The film chronicles the life of Misha Defonseca, a Belgian Holocaust survivor with a singular past, one so remarkable that it became both a bestselling book and a movie.
In the early ’90s, while living in the small town of Millis, Massachusetts, Defonseca began to talk, first to friends and neighbors and then to the congregation of Temple Bel Torah, about what happened to her when she was a child during World War II. How her parents were deported by the Nazis, and how she got taken in by another family. How in 1941, unhappy with what she felt were loveless foster parents, she set out, at the age of 7, in search of her real ones. And how this courageous, defiant, go-her-own-way girl simply wandered into the woods and kept wandering, attempting to travel on foot from Belgium to Germany.
How did she survive? By befriending a pack of wolves, who made her part of the pack, protecting her and feeding her. She lived with them in the woods, mostly away from the carnage of the war but witnessing occasional acts of violence; at one point she killed a German soldier. And thanks to her adoptive wolf family, she survived. This stranger-than-fiction tale, with its element of wild-child mythology, became an inspirational parable of wartime girl power, and “Misha and the Wolves” illustrates it with staged scenes of a young girl wandering through the woods (we see her only from behind), and shots — endless shots — of her boots trudging along. It’s all a bit glossy and repetitive. After a while you may think: Isn’t the film laying this on a bit thick?
It is. But not for the reason you think.
A neighbor of Defonseca’s, Jane Daniel, ran a tiny publishing company, the Mt. Ivy Press, and offered to publish her story as a book. “Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years” came out in 1997, and it was a huge bestseller abroad. We see Misha doing appearances on European talk shows, where her venerable old-world presence — now diffident, now humble, now tearful — holds audiences in thrall. But there’s a catch to this story, and to the documentary, and though I’m not big on spoiler alerts, I feel compelled to issue one here.
For a while, “Misha and the Wolves” seems mostly to be about the marketing of Misha Defonseca’s story. The more we hear about Misha and the wolves, the more we get the queasy feeling that the story was packaged as a piece of inspirational Holocaust kitsch. Oprah comes calling (as does Disney), with a potential Book Club offer. But Misha, for some reason, refuses to appear on “Oprah.” That’s part of her enigma.
Who is Misha Defonseca? Not who she appears to be. As we get to know her, she becomes less admirable and more fascinating, kind of like a character out of Patricia Highsmith. And though the documentary comes on as a cinematic Holocaust memoir, it turns out to be a wily and engrossing detective story. It’s in the genre of movies like “Capturing the Friedmans” and “Three Identical Strangers” that hinge on the trap-door effect of luring us into true-life narratives that may not be trustworthy. This one really isn’t trustworthy. But few things are as pleasurable in movies as having the rug pulled out from under you, and in this case the reality we’re questioning is one the entire culture played into: the desire to be enthralled, to be lifted up by the uncanny, to triumph over the darkness — and to become, as an audience, part of the hyping of all that. “Misha and the Wolves” is the story of a hoax that’s more interesting than the story the hoax was telling.
The spirit of this movie goes back to Errol Morris, and the director, Sam Hobkinson, uses Morris-like techniques to turn his interview subjects into “characters.” The publisher, Jane Daniel, presents a ritzy rural New England blend of guilelessness, idealism, and opportunism, and Eveylne Haendel, the genealogist and Holocaust survivor who pores over wartime deportation and school records to unearth the actual story of Misha’s childhood, has a doggedness driven by a self-effacing morality that makes her seem more heroic than any lost girl in the woods. The film’s cleverest conceit is the way Hobkinson interviews Misha herself (at least, it sure looks like he’s doing it). Much of the lure of “Misha and the Wolves” is that it’s simply a tricky good yarn spun around the unbelievable things that human beings will do. But the movie also, in its way, taps into the soul of an era when fake reality is threatening to dislodge actual reality. It’s about how world-class con artists succeed by telling us the stories we want to hear.
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