Misha Defonseca’s fantastic story of finding shelter in a pack of wolves while wandering through Nazi Germany seeking her deported parents, as told by Joni Soffron, co-founder of a wolf sanctuary in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Soffron noticed Misha’s connection with the creatures in her refuge. The two ladies got close. Given how this entire situation developed in “Misha and the Wolves,” there’s a reason Soffron’s tone is so flat. A fascinating and somewhat vexing new documentary produced by Sam Hobkinson. She deserved it. It is, indeed, “quite a tale.”
When the “story” first broke, it made international headlines. To recap, Misha, an immigrant to a tiny town in Massachusetts, said that when the Nazis imprisoned her parents, she was taken in by a Catholic family and given a new name to conceal her Jewish background. This was the narrative of many of the era’s “hidden children.” What was unusual was Misha’s choice to walk to her parents, and what was genuinely different were all those wolves. Surviving with Wolves, Misha’s book was released in 1997 by a tiny local publisher.
At first, sales were poor, but things picked up when Oprah Winfrey expressed interest in incorporating the book in her Book Club. Europe embraced Defonseca. The novel was translated into several languages, and it was turned into a film by French filmmaker Véra Belmont in 2007. Misha was a regular at press junkets, film festivals, discussion programs, and conferences. That’s basically all there is to it without approaching the spoiler zone.
“Misha and the Wolves” pulls the audience into the intertwining webs of the story, each character introduced with a Wes Anderson style title card: “The Neighbor.” “The Genealogist.” “The Wolf Expert.” While you may be unsure who to believe at first, “Misha and the Wolves” encourages belief during the first half-hour or so, with re-enactments. First, a little girl struggling alone through a snowy wilderness, then obligatory news footage of concentration camps and warfare, and interviews with Misha herself, whose impassioned delivery is compelling.
Eventually, the video transitions into a more typical investigation narrative, with genealogists, wolf specialists, and Holocaust historians piecing together various parts to establish what was and was not accurate about Misha’s story. Nobody wants to dispute Misha’s narrative, or the “lived experience” of a Holocaust survivor, especially when her story has struck such a deep chord. “Far be it from me to question her,” remarked the Massachusetts radio presenter who first interviewed Misha.
All of this is intriguing ground, but Hobkinson seems more interested in experimenting artistically, sowing uncertainty, and blindfolding the audience’s eyes, with one incredibly annoying “Gotcha!” not shown until the conclusion. This kind of stuff can be beneficial, especially in stories about frauds. It’s eye-opening to see the duping process and individuals ignoring red signs. This is how Internet frauds thrive (for example, the Kaycee Nicole scam). People were carried away not just by Kaycee Nicole’s situation but also by their ability for emotional response (to the point of leaving critical thinking at the door).
Jane Daniel, the publisher who started it all, reveals her reaction to discovering Misha’s story and, honestly, seeing cash signs. Her publishing company was small, and Misha’s wolf pack had the potential to push her over the brink. Hobkinson takes bold decisions with scary melodramatic music cues and piercing closeups of Jane’s eyes, portraying her as a monster, or maybe a victim, you’re not sure. In any case, these options serve the purpose of deception.
Later in the film, there are several sequences of an elderly Belgian genealogist (and Holocaust survivor herself) combing over ancient phone books and dusty documents to find clues to Misha’s true origin. It’s tedious work, and it may not be as visually appealing as, say, emotive re-enactments, but the detective work is where the story truly takes off, as these people who care about truth fact-check the narrative. The least intriguing method for this content is (basically) catfishing the audience.
The internet is said to be an information superhighway. Anyone can search for anything, and libraries are easily accessible to everyone. But, as we all know, things didn’t exactly turn out that way. Fragile strands of a time continuum are severed. Ignorance of what happened lately (and the twentieth century is very recent) is widespread. In this vacuum, alternative histories acquire support, and objectivity itself is viewed as questionable. In “Misha and the Wolves,” Holocaust historian Debórah Dwork is interviewed. Her views are refreshingly clear-sighted, placing the narrative in a broader framework of Holocaust denial and the significance of historical truth. These are all crucial issues, but they arrive so late in the film that they almost feel like an afterthought.