The truth proves far stranger than the fiction in this constantly surprising Holocaust chronicle.
In 1997, an extraordinary memoir was published detailing the experiences of a Holocaust survivor who had been adopted as a child by a pack of wolves. Entitled ‘Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years’, the book was a best-seller in France and Italy, and was even optioned by Disney to be adapted into a feature film. There was just one problem: none of it was true.
It would be over 20 years before Misha Defonseca (real name Monique de Wael) admitted that her book was a fantasy, but various people had suspected as much for years – including the publisher she had sued over the book’s distribution and royalties. Sam Hobkinson’s documentary tracks the story across decades, delving into the reality that de Dael obscured, and how she invented a tale that captured the imagination of readers around the world.
Interviews form the majority of the film, chiefly with de Wael’s former publisher Jane Daniel and Belgian genealogist Evelyne Haendel, whose parents were killed during the Holocaust. The pair turned amateur detectives to investigate the discrepancies in Misha’s story, wrestling with the fact that doubting her account – if indeed it was true – was a particularly callous thing to do. Their persistence and meticulous research is presented in fascinating detail, and Hobkinson presents a fairytale-like quality to his film which mimics the fantastical nature of its source material.
With subject matter like this, it would be hard to present a film that isn’t interesting; some stories are simply made for telling. But Hopkinson’s decision to allow the people impacted by da Weael long-running lie to speak for themselves is shrewd. In particular, Haendel gives a moving account of her own life as a hidden child and coming to terms with the murder of her parents. The wealth of archive footage is also compelling, allowing us to see how convinced of her own fantasy de Wael was.
The phenomenon of writers who fabricate events in order to sell books persists to this day; one only needs to look at JT Leroy or James Frey. But the truth is often stranger than fiction, and this historical story of deception is told with artistic confidence, exploring what drove de Wael to fabricate such an outlandish tale, and why it was so easy for people to believe her. It’s an engrossing, poignant watch, with a charismatic cast of characters who speak candidly, though its bait-and-switch tricks will work best on those who know as little about the case as possible.
Published 1 Feb 2021
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