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Sundance 2021 ‘Misha and the Wolves’ Review: An Unimaginable Story of Survival Becomes an Unimaginative Documentary

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
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Misha and the Wolves has an instantly fascinating subject matter — it tells the story of Misha Defonseca, a Belgian woman who wrote an astonishing Holocaust memoir of survival in Nazi-occupied Europe with the help of wolves. Yet the documentary, directed by Sam Hobkinson, gets more caught up in its own storytelling magic than in the intrigue of the real story.

The real story, whatever “real” means here, begins on Yom HaShoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day. As an adult living in Boston, the Belgian-born, Jewish Misha Defonesca decided it was time to tell her story. At her synagogue, Misha went up to the bima to share her tale for the first time, claiming her parents were taken by Nazis when she was 7 and she was given a new identity in a Catholic family. According to her tale, she decided at age 7 to walk to Germany to find her Jewish family. Alone in the woods, she encounters wolves, who become her guides as the pack accepts her as one of their own. A searing string score provides the appropriate emotional cues, while the narrative features sonic and visual reconstructions of Misha roaming through the woods or sharing her story at the synagogue. Countless talking heads recount feeling overwhelmed by Misha’s story, and publisher Jane Daniel immediately thinks Misha’s narrative is a great idea for a book: the story is an almost unbelievable, mesmerizing tale of how she traversed thousands of miles of Nazi-occupied wilderness in search of her Jewish parents. 

If it all sounds absurd and fantastical, that’s because it is. A quick Google search of Misha’s name reveals that her story was all made up; Misha is actually Monique de Wael, born to Catholic parents. Her parents really were killed by Nazis, though it was because they were resistance members, not Jews.  This potential spoiler doesn’t ruin the fun, exactly, as anyone can see straight away that something must be off — because why else make this documentary filled with all the eerie and foreboding music cues and camera angles of a police procedural? Whether we know the full truth to begin with or not, the early stretch proves wearisome as we wait for the other shoe to drop and the lie builds and builds.

The book is translated into countless languages, and garners interest from Disney and Oprah’s book club; yet soon begins the legal battle between Misha and her publisher, which eats up much of the screen time in the first stretch as the primary conflict, as Jane Daniel, perhaps more motivated by a drive for profits than a search for truth, starts to question Misha’s story and undermine her credibility. Part of the reason why the con lasts as long as it does is because Misha is damn good at her act; and people want to believe this remarkable story of survival against the Nazis. What is reality, and what is reconstruction? How much of what we are watching or listening to is based in fact, and how much is just what we want to believe? 

In interrogating the nature of truth, Hobkinson toys with documentary genre conventions; while documentary by definition implies non-fiction, Hobkinson gives glimpses of the filmmaking apparatus to force the audience to question the ideas of truth-telling and deception. Yet while this self-reflexive impetus has glimmers of something interesting and thought-provoking, the documentary makes some strange choices that lack ample signalling or commentary to communicate the filmmaker’s points fully. For instance, the film makes prominent use of a reenactor to give interviews as “Misha,” only she is not signalled as such upon first introduction; this so-called Misha is presented as Misha herself, giving testimony to the camera and talking about her life.

There are sneaking suspicions that arise as photographs of the real Misha/Monique look visibly different from the woman speaking; the deception is unmasked more fully in one scene, where we follow “Misha” to her dressing room, where she removes her wig and reveals her true self. This is an intriguing approach to the layers upon layers of trickery in this story about constructions of truth and identity; yet it can feel like the director gets more caught upon in playing this trick on the audience than thinking about what his trick is actually trying to say. 

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

In search of perhaps a more biting critique of the seductive stories we tell others and ourselves, the film resorts to easy suspense, spinning the whole thing as a crime story (which it is, in part) rather than a more nuanced human drama of why people lie or allow themselves to be lied to. In addition, while some figures are more intent on deceiving or profiting off of pain, there are also actual people who survived unimaginable trauma: for instance, Evelyne Haendel, a Holocaust survivor in Belgium. Haendel becomes a detective, as she becomes a dogged investigator and the one who finds de Wael’s birth records and school records to uncover her real identity. Haendel is a much more deserving subject, and has a fascinating story of survival herself. Yet her portion of the film is awash in true-crime and conspiracy clichés, from boards connecting all the clues, to rapid-flashing reenactments, to interviews spouting theories underscored by dramatic music.

For how crazy the true events were, this documentary manages to become boring, as the tricks of movie magic no longer entertain us quite as much once we start to realize that they are tricks. There’s something dark and disturbing at the core of Misha’s deception and the whole international cast of characters who became part of it, but perhaps we would have reached more insight had we used the reveal as a starting point rather than as a source of suspense. There were so many exciting avenues for this film to take, but exposing the “truth” is probably the least interesting part of this wild story. 

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