Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Holocaust again, but via children: Larry Weinstein's doc INSIDE HANA'S SUITCASE

Yet another Holocaust documentary is upon us, this one carrying quite a trail of goodwill in its wake. The original book from which INSIDE HANA'S SUITCASE -- the new film by prolific documentarian Larry Weinstein -- is adapted, has already been translated into 40 languages and published world-wide. Further, of all the Holocaust documentaries TrustMovies has seen (he's long ago lost count), this one is by far the most children-oriented. Not only are its leading characters -- Holocaust victim Hana Brady and her brother George -- children (we see George as both child and senior citizen; Hana never made it to adulthood), but children of all kinds figure heavily throughout the movie, sometimes even going so far as to share the labor of narrating it.

Mr. Weinstein, shown at right, begins his story as a very lovely young Japanese woman Fumiko Ishioka, shown below, director of the Holocaust Education Centre in Tokyo, receives a package mailed to her from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Inside is a suitcase that, we learn, belonged to a young girl who died in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, about whom Ms. Ishioka wants to learn more. Her students are primed for this project, as well. In fact, they and other youngsters around the world join Ishioka in telling us Hana's story.

Nicely cross-cultural, the movie jumps easily from Japan and its Holocaust Education Centre to Europe, particularly the former Czechoslovakia (where Hana and George were born) and Germany, then on to Canada, where, after World War II, George ended up living and raising his own family. A kind of reverse of Sarah's Key, a French Holocaust tale in which an older sister comes to terms with the death of her brother, the film is quite a grab-bag of styles and content: historical footage, both documentary-style and heavy-duty narrative re-enactments, talking heads (often children) and more. This works surprisingly well in most instances, while adhering to what I surmise is the movie's main -- and important -- purpose: to keep the Holocaust a part of history in the minds of today's children, and thus in those of generations to come.

There are times when the film's use of its many devices is spectac-ularly good. One scene involves Ms Ishioka, history, narration, animation, present-day photography and live action -- all rolled into a few amazing minutes. Brother George (shown today, above, right, with the actress who portrays Hana) speaks very movingly and intelligently of living life as a survivor and what this means.

There were times during the film when I grew annoyed with what I perceived as an overuse of narrative, and I began to wonder if this would not have worked better as a wholly narrative or wholly documentary film. You'll have your own take on this question, but perhaps, to reach an audience made up of primarily young people, it was decided by the film-making team to use more narrative devices. The result is a sometimes odd but generally affecting combination of the two.

Just when you imagine the movie is over, there is a final ironic, somewhat nasty, surprise. But even this is looked at in an optimistic manner. So as not to upset the children, perhaps? Inside Hana's Suitcase, 90 minutes from Menemsha Films, opens this Wednesday, April 18 -- in commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day -- in New York City at the Quad Cinema. On Friday, April 20, it will also open in New York at the Kew Gardens Cinema and the Malverne Cinema Four. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

4 comments:

Tom MacInnes said...

Good review of a wonderful movie. I am not sure if this would interest you or your readers but, this book was the basis for one of my favourite moments in a 23 year teaching career. I wrote about it on Wattpad. Feel free to check it out. http://t.co/ddyhT7TX

movidora said...

I must see the surprise at the end of the movie, also interesting the combination of narrative and docu.
I don´t know, if "Au revoir les enfants" de Louis Malle is known, I liked very much the orientation to the children´s fate.
Best greetings from Karlsruhe
Movidora

James van Maanen said...

Thanks, Tom MacInnes, for your comment. I will indeed check out that Wattpad site. I can fully beieve that the book might be the basis for some memorable teaching moments! It and its movie seem to reach children in a special and important way.

James van Maanen said...

Hello, Movidora from Karlsruhe (I looked up your town on Google Maps), and thank you for your comment. For some reason, Blogspot is not sending me my comments in a timely fashion when I use Google Chrome to post.

Today, I happend to try posting with Internet Explorer and -- whoops -- several comments had piled up over the past two weeks, so I will try to answer them now.

And, yes, Louis Malle's Au revoir les enfants is quite well known over here, and it does make an interesting comparison with Inside Hana's Suitcase. I have not seen Malle' film in many years, so maybe it's time I watched it again.