Misha and the Wolves (2021)
The Sundance documentary Misha and the Wolves, now available on Netflix streaming, is a movie about trauma, lies, and ultimately proves to be unfulfilling due to the circumstances of its own narrative limitations, both in subject and approach. It’s worth watching at only 90 interview-packed minutes, but it’s also a case of a movie that could have gone much deeper into a troubled subject that demanded more scrutiny and psychological examination than what the film has to offer.
Misha Defonseca was an elderly Belgian immigrant living in a small Pennsylvania town when she decided to share her personal story of survival one day at her community synagogue. When she was seven years old, her parents were taken by Nazis during the Holocaust. She was living with a Catholic family and hiding her real identity but she wanted to be with her parents, so she set out on foot across the country to find them, and in the process stumbled upon a pack of wolves who grew to accept her as one of their own. Misha’s story was immediately engaging, and a local publisher snapped up the rights to sell her story. Oprah’s talk show wanted to make Misha’s story their next book club selection. Disney wanted to buy the film rights. This story was going to be huge, but then Misha backed down from both media suitors. It picked up in Europe where Misha traveled and gave lectures on her spellbinding experience and they made it into a French movie in 2008. It is a truly remarkable story. The problem is that her unbelievable true story wasn’t actually true.
It’s a story that even one interview subject admits sounded “too fantastic to be true,” and in hindsight it’s one of those stories that I’m sure many would feel foolish for believing – a little girl at the age of seven trekking hundreds of miles, on her own, through the war, in enemy territory, and then accepted by a friendly wolf pack. It definitely beggars belief but nobody wants to think skeptically of someone who claims to be a Holocaust survivor. I wouldn’t want to assume the worst of anyone’s personal experiences during such a hellish time. The primary interview subject is Misha’s first publisher she sued who is the one that first started investigating the voracity of this amazing tale. She relates how disgusted she felt doing what she did, suspecting the worst in someone who had experienced her own set of traumas. She says she felt like a villain in a story that she didn’t sign up for. Admittedly, she could have researched Misha’s claims early on to verify her account but chose not to because she was thinking of how much money she could make. However, there have been so many amazing tales of survival from the atrocities of the Holocaust so maybe Misha could have been accepted by a pack of wolves and offered protection. Maybe she did stab and kill a Nazi as a child like she said. Maybe. That need to believe survivors and the fear of calling out the storyteller for their accompanying proof is what Misha exploited to continue spinning her phony story. She exploited the good will of being a survivor and the communal sympathies of others. Why she did what she did is another matter that frustratingly goes unexplored.
There is one big narrative twist that I was predicting early on and that I think most viewers will be able to anticipate once they start asking their own questions, but for the sake of spoilers I’ll caution that this paragraph is going to talk about this gambit because I don’t know how to discuss the implications and how it dulls the movie without being specific. With that being said, early in the movie we have Misha being interviewed but there are limits to what she is responding to, limits that become more notable as her story continues at points that you’re positive a documentary filmmaker would want their subject’s direct personal input rather than having others speak for them. That’s when I began suspecting that the Misha on camera was going to be revealed to be an actor, and two-thirds of the way through the film that is exactly what happens. Our fake Misha pulls off a wig and peels off the elaborate makeup. Aha, a story about a phony Holocaust survivor has itself made use of fictitious representations. I can understand some viewers feeling hoodwinked and perhaps a little angry from this deception. I can also understand why the filmmakers elected to go this route thematically so that they could replicate the feel of what Misha’s friends and neighbors and supporters may have felt. There’s also the very pragmatic issue of not having access to the subject of your documentary. It’s a missing hole that seriously hobbles the impact and reach of the movie, and that’s where Misha and the Wolves starts to disappoint. It’s understandable to supply your own stand-in version of Misha to respond to the claims and accusations. It’s a necessary perspective. Once the jig is up, and you know for certain that Misha will not be available to explain anything, then you realize the movie is a whodunnit where it would have been far more engrossing as a whytheydunnit. There are questions we want answered for such a heinous fabrication, and I wish the film had been structured not in the details of uncovering Misha’s false identity but in trying to explain why someone would do such a thing. The movie is lacking psychological insight and without that it becomes any other well-made but disposable episode of ordinary true crime television.
It begs the question that I wish the documentary would have gone much deeper into, namely why would anyone fashion a Holocaust story for themselves? Defonseca is far from the only person who fabricated a story about their Holocaust history. Rosemarie Kocz was an artist who said she escaped from two concentration camps and whose art hung in museums around the world including Yad Vashem in Israel. She was a fraud. Herman Rosenblat embellished his own Holocaust survival with a love story of reconnecting with the young girl who gave him apples in the camp and that was completely made up. Joseph Hirt said he met Dr. Mengele and then, upon confrontation, said he had lied to “keep the memories alive” about Holocaust history. That justification offends me and likely should offend you too, dear reader. The numerous dead do not need the stories of phony victims to keep their memories alive. When people greedily co-opt another human’s tragedy as their own, they are knowingly diminishing it by trying to transform this horror into something appealing about their own life story and experiences. If anything, these stories are making it more likely for pernicious Holocaust denial to spread, with deniers pointing to these phony personal accounts and saying, “See.” It dishonors the dead and their memory.
The story behind Misha and the Wolves is interesting and inflammatory but also very surface-level in substance ultimately, about uncovering the truth behind a liar’s lies. There is a certain level of interest in watching how the investigation picks up momentum and makes the necessary connections to finally reveal the disappointing truth, but then the movie doesn’t go a step further. It’s about how a liar’s story fell apart but there seems more potential with exploring why people falsify such stories of real-life trauma. For Misha, her own personal experiences involved tragedy at the hands of Nazis, so why was that not enough? Misha said that her story might not be reality but it is her reality. I don’t fully understand her position, but I will likely never understand why someone like Misha Defonseca does what they do. I suppose there’s an inherent attention-seeking intent. Maybe a projection of pretending to be someone else, a person who has survived amazing ordeals and come out the other side. One of the film’s subjects, Evelyn Haendel, a Holocaust survivor and investigator, declares Misha both a victim and a villain, but she dismisses the idea of these fabrications as acceptable outlets for troubled souls. In an era of increasing Holocaust denialism, these phony accounts are unfortunate fuel and are even more incendiary. Misha and the Wolves is an okay documentary on a topic that demands more attention.
Nate’s Grade: B-