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Misha and the Wolves

  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
Misha and the Wolves
Photograph: Sundance Film Festival

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

This stranger-than-fiction Holocaust detective story is a dizzying puzzle that finds new ways to surprise

‘It was unbelievable’ marvels an early interviewee in this Holocaust-adjacent documentary of the almost mythic tale at its heart – and as she later acknowledges, she’s more right that she knows. A detective story-cum-meta-narrative full of trapdoors, Misha and the Wolves is a film to tiptoe through carefully, reserving judgment until the end credits roll. You know where it’s going – and then you don’t.

The ‘Misha’ of the title is Misha Defonseca. She’s a (now) elderly Belgian émigrée who moved to small-town Massachusetts in the post-war years and put down roots in the local community. Her story, and its various retellings down the years, forms the crux of this strange, hypnotically compelling film. She was, she’d tell her friends, of Jewish heritage. Her parents were sent to a Nazi concentration camp, leaving her in the care of a harsh foster family. Then, as a seven-year-old with a penknife and a few provisions, she set off across occupied Europe to find her mum and dad. The wolves were her companions in the snowy woods and forests; they even accepted her into the pack.

Inevitably, this extraordinary Anne Frank-meets-Kaspar-Hauser tale became a book – ‘Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years’ – and then nearly a Disney movie, only to curdle into an vicious lawsuit between Defonseca and her ambitious publisher, Julie Daniel. And... well, that’s as far as a synopsis can go without starting to draw the sting from British director Sam Hobkinson’s maze-like film.

Of course, there’s much more to all of this than meets the eye. Subtle red flags clue you into the subterfuge: the wartime reconstructions seem somehow off; the interviews with Defonseca herself are oddly neat. Before long, you realise that you’re somewhere in that eerie space between truth and fiction. Here, the film suggests, things can be both untrue and yet still have an emotional truth to them. 

Hobkinson deftly shows how a story can be shaped and reshaped to suit the person telling it. Almost everyone we meet is taking advantage of this story’s power and marketability: from Defonseca to Daniel to the multitude of chat show hosts and media types who queue up to invite the author to recount it all anew, eyes glistening with tears. Even this film slots into that cycle. Smartly, Misha and the Wolves leans into the idea that it is adding another layer to the onion, pointedly revealing some of its own filmmaking artifices (there’s a cameo from the camera crew) to warn the viewer that it too has an agenda.

And like its obvious kin in the canon of stranger-than-fiction documentaries, like The Imposter, Three Identical Strangers and Shirkers, Misha and the Wolves never forgets to be fun to watch. Dramatisations, archive footage and illustrations, alongside more conventional talking-head interviews, bring this emotive subject matter to life sensitively yet with plenty of visual panache. Slippery yet stylish, empathetic yet forensic, the result is a fascinating bundle of complexities. Just like its subject. 

In UK cinemas Sep 3.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Sam Hobkinson
  • Screenwriter:Sam Hobkinson
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