Misha and the Wolves shows a fake Holocaust memoir sparking a search for truth

Sam Hobkinson’s documentary about Misha Defonseca’s falsified story of Second World War survival lacks suspense despite some narrative trickery.

1 September 2021

By Lisa Mullen

Misha and the Wolves (2021)
Sight and Sound

Misha and the Wolves is in UK cinemas from 3 September.

This intriguing, but not wholly successful, documentary tells the story of a story of a story. It’s a tangled mixture of fact and fiction concerning a Belgian child who grew up with a head full of bad World War II memories, and lived to become a world-famous, best-selling Holocaust survivor. Why so successful? Because hers was not a gruelling narrative of obscene murder and horror, but an uplifting tale of innocence and redemption. Because also: hers wasn’t true.

That’s not a spoiler: the fraud was exposed in 2008. Indeed, a lack of suspense is one problem director Sam Hobkinson faces as he pieces together the strange birth and sudden death of this terrible lie. There are others: the protagonist, Misha Defonseca, is unsurprisingly reluctant to be interviewed. And then, there’s the sheer preposterousness of the whole sordid business.

Misha and the Wolves (2021)

Defonseca’s story was obvious nonsense: an epic, months-long trek through the forests of Europe which she supposedly made, aged seven, on foot and alone, in search of her parents. How could a tiny child survive such an ordeal? Why, with the help of a friendly pack of wolves! Misha tearfully recounted this fairytale over and over again, in television appearances, in lecture halls and of course in synagogues, where she was welcomed as a Jew (which she is not) and showered with love, support and charity. Her greed was her downfall: a fight over money prompted her American ex-publisher to blow the whole thing open. Enter the real star of this film, Evelyne Haendel – a Belgian researcher who really is a Jewish Holocaust survivor, and really does have a story to tell; she is also sharp as a tack, and proved relentless in tracking down the documents which would detonate Defonseca’s lie.

Haendel might have carried the film on her own, but Hobkinson decides to ginger up his narrative with a bit of trickery, interviewing an actress posing as Defonseca, and then dismantling the subterfuge as the film progresses. It’s an interesting idea but it feels like a distraction from the real questions, and the real anger this story ought to provoke. What possessed those who enabled this woman? Did the dollar signs in their eyes make them wink, or something else? More importantly, what was the damage to the memory of the dead, bereaved, and traumatised people whose suffering was so cynically exploited? The film backs away from the story’s grimmest implications, but it seems wrong to tell the story of the story without them.

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