Misha and the Wolves (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A Holocaust story too good to be true

Netflix documentary film “Misha and the Wolves”, which was released in last week, presents a real-life story which is surely stranger than fiction for good reasons. Mainly revolving around an unbelievably dramatic tale from one old woman, the documentary initially draws our attention as examining how much that narrative of hers appealed to everyone around her, and then it catches us off guard as pulling the rug from under us in more than one way, so I sincerely recommend you not to read further if you are already interested in watching the documentary without exposed to any spoiler.

During its early part, the documentary introduces us to several different interviewees who knew a woman named Misha Defonseca in the 1990s. On the surface, she was just an ordinary old Belgian lady living with her husband in a small rural town of Massachusetts, but she later told her close neighbors that she was actually a Holocaust survivor who lost her Jewish parents during the World War II, and her neighbors were quite touched and impressed by her harrowing narrative of survival and resilience. When she subsequently told her story at a meeting held at a local Jewish synagogue, her audiences were utterly captivated by her story, and one of the interviewees in the documentary still vividly remembers that impressive moment.

Defonseca’s story was quite dramatic to say the least. According her, her parents were suddenly arrested and then deported to somewhere along with many other Jewish people shortly after Nazi Germany invaded Belgium in 1940, but young Defonseca was fortunately protected by a Catholic family just like many other local Jewish children during that dark period. Mainly because of the lack of care and affection from that Catholic family, young Defonseca later decided to leave and then search for her parents for herself, and she surely experienced and witnessed many horrors of the war as trying to survive and reunite with her parents, but, when the war was over, her parents turned out to be dead already.

As listening to Defonseca’s story, my mind went back to one of the most acerbic lines from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s great classic film “All About Eve” (1950): “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.” Well, Defonseca’s story does not have any bloodhound, but, surprise, it has a pack of wild wolves which somehow let her join them shortly after their accidental encounter in the middle of a winter forest. Although they regarded her as a lesser being in the pack, these wild wolves were more reliable than humans to her, and their company gave her more will and strength for surviving whatever would come upon her.

As Defonseca’s unbelievably remarkable story was spread more around the town, her neighbors suggested that her story should be known to more people out there, and one of them, who happened to be a local small-time publisher, was quite willing to publish Defonseca’s memoir. Once it was written, Defonseca’s memoir came to draw lots of attention even before its publication date in US, and everything seemed to be going pretty well for Defonseca and her publisher as her memoir was also introduced to the European market.

However, there came a big legal trouble between Defonseca and her publisher, and her publisher came to have a growing doubt on Defonseca’s story. Especially after finding one glaring discrepancy between her memoir and its French version, Defonseca’s publisher became quite determined to get to the bottom of this increasingly questionable matter, and the documentary accordingly introduces to a couple of persons hired for investigating this matter at that time. One of them was incidentally a Jewish Belgian genealogist who was also a Holocaust survivor, and that person was certainly quite interested in verifying whether Defonseca’s story was really true.

Meanwhile, Defonseca’s story continued to draw more attention outside. Her memoir became a bestseller in many European countries including France, and we see a series of archival footage clips showing her being interviewed on French TV programs. In addition, the memoir was subsequently adapted into a feature film in 2007, and that certainly boosted its popularity among many European readers – until a certain undeniable fact was fully exposed in public not long after that movie was released in France.

Around that point, the documentary takes a couple of unexpected turns later. While I was amazed to some degree during my viewing, I am not that sure about whether that really brings any extra depth to the narrative, though director/writer Sam Hobkinson and his crew members did a slick job of engaging and then surprising us more and more along the narrative. In fact, the overall result feels rather superficial at times as not delving that deep into how easily people can be deceived due to understandable human reasons, and you may be disappointed if you expect any insight and understanding on Defonseca, who later turns out to be a much more distant figure in the documentary than she seems to us at first.

Anyway, “Misha and the Wolves” is a fairly entertaining documentary on the whole, and I recommend it despite having some reservation. Because I read one review on it in advance, I was not surprised as much as intended, but I had a fair share of amusement and disbelief from its inherently compelling real-life story, so I will not grumble for now.

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