In 1997, a Massachusetts resident named Misha Defonseca, who had emigrated to the United States about a decade earlier, published a memoir of her improbable survival during World War II as she made her way east from Belgium to find her imprisoned Jewish parents. She was but 7 at that time, and her book, entitled Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, told the remarkable tale of how she traveled on her own, even befriending a pack of wolves along the way. Sound unbelievable? Hold on to your cinematic hats, as director Sam Hobkinson (The Kleptocrats) is here to take you on a journey to the ostensible unknown in Misha and the Wolves, his new documentary that chronicles the riddle that unfolded in the years after Difonseca’s book became a bestseller.
No matter how fanciful the twists and turns, the movie proceeds at a jaunty pace, its score and colorful title cards whipping us merrily along. First, we hear Misha’s voice, sometime in the past, initially recounting her adventures to a radio host and then to a rapt congregation at a synagogue. Then, we meet her as she is today, followed by an evolving cast of eventually 12 supporting players, each of whom holds a different piece of the puzzle at hand. The narrative starts slowly, with Misha’s neighbors and friends explaining how they learned of her story. One of those is publisher Jane Daniel, who convinced Misha to put thoughts to paper, resulting in the aforementioned manual, which quickly garnered favorable attention.
Let’s pause for a moment before proceeding. This is an autobiography in which a little girl in the middle of war-torn Europe walks by herself through the woods, encountering a wolf pack that somehow doesn’t attack but, instead, adopts her. Shades of Jean Craighead George’s 1972 Julie and the Wolves, anyone? From the excerpts we hear, it also seems that young Misha killed a man. Her odyssey lasted a few years, and at a time when millions died in a myriad of gruesome ways, she emerged very much alive. Did no one think to vet the details?
For that is where things begin to heat up. Just as Misha is about to go on Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show, she gets cold feet, breaks up with her publisher, sues that publisher (and wins a huge settlement), and goes on to continued great acclaim in the French-speaking world, including a 2007 movie adaptation of her book. Daniel, financially ruined and, though angry, wary of going after a Holocaust survivor, begins to dig into the nuts and bolts of things, hiring a genealogist in the States and an investigator in Belgium, the latter also a Holocaust survivor,. From there, the strange becomes even weirder.
Hobkinson keeps it real, though, even as some of his techniques, beyond the obvious reenactments, are later revealed as not quite nonfiction. This hazy line between fact and fiction more than suits elements of the drama, however. Engaging, throughout, Misha and the Wolves is never quite what it seems, and is all the better for it. Rich in both history and artifice, the documentary is ultimately as much about the mysteries of the human spirit as about the mystery of Misha.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)