'Misha and the Wolves': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Misha and the Wolves
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Enjoyable if you're seeking playfulness and not substance.

Sam Hobkinson's documentary explores a (literally) unbelievable story of Holocaust survival — and why people choose to believe.

Fox Mulder made the slogan "I Want To Believe" iconic with his UFO poster on The X-Files, but the reason it has spawned so much memorabilia and so many memes is that it speaks to a very human desire.

We're a credulous species, even if we're aware that con men and fraudsters abound. It's programmed into us to want to believe, no matter how outlandish a bill of goods we're being sold.

Sam Hobkinson's documentary Misha and the Wolves is about one particularly notorious tall tale, but it's really much more about the reasons we fall victim to hoaxes and hucksters, a topic that will always be relevant whether the news is talking about Rachel Dolezal or QAnon or the Loch Ness Monster. It's such a universal sensation and the story at the center of Misha and the Wolves is so wild that most viewers probably won't worry that the most substantive and crucial piece of Hobkinson's documentary is the one delivered least convincingly.

The story begins in the early 1990s as Misha Defonseca, a Belgian immigrant, told an incredible story as part of her synagogue's day of Holocaust commemoration. The tale, as she spun it, was that she was a displaced child in the Holocaust, separated from her parents and raised by a Catholic family. At some point, Misha left that family and, still a little girl, traveled on foot through the chilly European wilderness because she'd heard that her parents were in Germany. Misha said she walked hundreds, if not thousands, of miles, eventually hiding from Nazis with a pack of wild wolves, who treated her as one of their own.

You might even remember the story. It became a book that became an international bestseller (Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years) and was adapted into a French movie, Survivre avec les loups. It spawned an acrimonious lawsuit involving publisher Jane Daniel.

And then the story began to fall apart.

Safely ensconced within the confines of a Sundance documentary, it's easy for a viewer to go through the multi-year odyssey of Misha's story in 90 minutes, the whiplash of responses from "That's incredible!" to "I can't believe it!" to "Wait, no. I really can't believe it!" to "How could anyone have believed that?". We can go from willing participants in the lie to smug outsiders mocking the chumps and rubes.

The thing Hobkinson (Netflix's Fear City) knows, as any documentary filmmaker does, is that when information is presented in a certain way, audiences have the desire to accept it as fact. Call something a documentary or even make it look like a documentary and our gut tells us it's true.

We've come to accept that re-enactments, layers of fiction within our documentaries, represent truth. When you stop to think of it, it's ridiculous that we do this, because your typical documentary re-enactment is bad. Nine times out of 10, it's a surrender, a confession that the available interviews and footage around a story weren't enough to fill time. No matter if they use an artificial aesthetic or are populated by generally bad actors, we take them as a piece of truth, if not truth itself, because they're truth-adjacent.

Hobkinson cleverly plays around with the conventions of the genre and the notion of truth-adjacency in recounting this deception. At all points, you should be watching the screen and pondering who is telling what parts of the story and what pieces of information are being left out, what choices the director is making.

It's fun, and told in a playful way, each talking head introduced like they're a specialist in a heist movie: The Publisher. The Genealogist. The Teacher. The Journalist. It's an intentional simplifying of the story, but for some reason that simplifying makes it easier to believe. Hobkinson also illustrates Misha's yarn with the most rudimentary of re-enactments. A girl, shot from behind, walks through a snowy forest. Over and over again.

Where Misha and the Wolves fell apart for me was in its last half-hour: Misha's actual story is fascinating in its own way, but within the relative levity of Hobkinson's framework, her truth and trauma get lost in a detective yarn. The film lacks the heft to adequately explain the nuance of Misha's truth, to go into depth on how it relates to collective lies that whole European nations tell themselves about collaboration and capitulation. The lies tie into American guilt about the Holocaust as well — what steps weren't taken to prevent the tragedies and what we have to do now to remember and seek absolution. There's a potential cost to her lies as well, especially in a world where Holocaust denial and doubt remain. That's ignored completely.

Instead, we're left with reductive truisms instead of truth. People believe because of sympathy. We believe because of empathy. We believe if we can spot opportunities for personal gain in belief. We believe because we're entertained and distracted and for that reason, it's easy to walk away from Misha and the Wolves feeling that's enough. I felt it was clever and glib when smart and substantive was required.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary Competition)
Production Companys: Arts Alliance, Met Film Production, Bright Yellow Films, Las Belgas, Take Five
Director: Sam Hobkinson
Producers: Poppy Dixon, Al Morrow, Matthew Wells, Gregory Zalcman, Jurgen Buedts
Cinematographer: Will Pugh
Editor: Peter Norrey

90 minutes