By Barry Hertz
How do you make a film about the Holocaust? I’m not talking about the Second World War — which has been depicted through innumerable film genres — but specifically the genocide against the Jewish people. It’s a near-impossible assignment to take on: One false move and you end up in the sickeningly saccharine territory staked out by the likes of Jakob the Liar and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. To make an emotionally complex yet respectful picture about the Holocaust takes skill, patience and more than a little bit of chutzpah. Remarkably, Larry Weinstein manages to combine all these elements with his feature-length directorial debut, Inside Hana’s Suitcase.
Originally screened at this spring’s Hot Docs festival in Toronto, Weinstein’s assured and slick quasi-documentary crosses borders, languages and time to tell the story of a young Czech girl and her death at the hands of the Nazis. The film opens in modern-day Tokyo as Fumiko Ishioka, the director of the city’s Holocaust Education Centre, receives a weathered suitcase from Auschwitz bearing the name of Hana Brady. There are a few haunting, key clues written on the piece of luggage, including “waisenkind,” the German word for orphan.
Enlisting her young Japanese students, who know next to nothing about the Holocaust, Fumiko delves deep into Hana’s history, determined to find out how the girl died.
Fumiko’s own journey leads her to Toronto, where Hana’s older brother, George Brady, now lives. As the two strangers get to know each other, and George relives his painful memories, the film becomes part history lesson, part intense family drama. When George travels to Tokyo to teach Fumiko’s students about his sister, it’s impossible not to become engulfed with emotions as the aged grandfather, who rarely spoke of the war before, describes what seems to be another life.
Based on the best-selling investigative book by Karen Levine, Weinstein’s film eschews a traditional narrator, instead relying on the voices of Toronto and Japanese students to explain how one piece of battered luggage ended up changing the lives of so many. The narration tactic works wonders as various schoolchildren get the chance to both propel the story and explain how Hana’s short life affected their own. Weinstein’s expert directorial pacing and skillful editing also help the documentary roll along at a brisk, almost thrilling pace.
The film is not without the occasional misstep, though. By peppering the feature with dramatic reenactments of Hana’s life, Weinstein often loses the heart of the story — the modern-day students and their reactions to the horrors of the Holocaust. Although Weinstein, the noted Canadian producer of such films as Blindness and The Saddest Music in the World, tries to blend the fictional sequences in as seamlessly as possible, the trick is more often jarring than not. The interludes, shot in a clichéd sepia-toned hue, simply never measure up to the authenticity of the film’s candid, real-life interviews.
Still, in terms of Holocaust films, Weinstein’s is just as powerful as Schindler’s List or Tim Blake Nelson’s underrated feature The Grey Zone. Inside Hana’s Suitcase is not an easy film to watch, but it is an important one.