'Broken Dreams': Film Review

Courtesy of Smoking Mirror Productions
A deeply moving first-hand account.
12/6/2019

Tomasz Magierski's documentary recounts the story of two teenage Jewish sisters struggling to survive the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Anne Frank was not the only young girl who wrote a diary during the years of the Holocaust. There was also Renia Spiegel, who wrote some 700 pages before being murdered by the Nazis in the streets of her hometown of Przemysl, Poland. Published earlier this year after being locked away for decades, Renia's Diary: A Holocaust Journal provides the inspiration for Broken Dreams, Tomasz Magierski's deeply moving documentary about Renia and her younger sister Ariana, who survived the war and narrates the story onscreen.

As a young girl, the outgoing Ariana was a natural performer, regaling her friends and family members with poetry recitals and song. Her mother encouraged her to go into show business, and it wasn't long before 9-year-old Ariana was performing professionally onstage and in Polish films. Her ebullience and singing and dancing abilities led to her being referred to as the "Polish Shirley Temple."  

Her older sister Renia was much more reserved and shy. But as her diary entries illustrate, she had a rich inner life, as both a normal teenage girl obsessed with boys and as a deeply patriotic, burgeoning resistance fighter in a country occupied first by the Soviets and then the Germans. She went through a female military training program, and later wrote, "In a word, I fight, with the rest of the Polish nation."

In the documentary, excerpts from the diary entries, which date from 1939-1942, are recited in Polish by Aleksandra Bernatek, a young actress who comes from the sisters' Polish hometown. Seen in intense close-up throughout, Bernatek delivers emotive readings that fully convey Renia's girlishness, passion and inner strength. When she turns 16, Renia describes it as "the best period of my life." But as the timeline moves forward, she provides a harrowing account of the brutal conditions imposed on the city by its occupiers.

Alternating with these segments are scenes in which the now elderly Ariana tells her story, delivering detailed reminiscences that are both emotional and sometimes amusing. In an example of the latter, she describes her distaste for the Russian soldiers who had invaded her town, mainly because they smelled bad. "I don't think they had too many changes of clothes," she comments. The documentary also includes contemporary scenes of her singing songs in what looks like a vintage jewel-box theater. She also talks about how much she loved her sister Renia, recalling how she used to crawl into bed with her at night to be comforted.

But it's the diary entries which inevitably provide the film with its most poignant moments, such as Renia describing how she made a vow with a friend to meet up again in 10 years, no matter what each of them had done with their lives. That meeting would have taken place in 1950, but Renia never lived to see it. She was killed by the Nazis in 1942, just a couple of months after she had turned 18. The final entry of her diary was written by her boyfriend (a male actor reads this portion in the film), who kept the manuscript for years until he emigrated to America and was reunited with Ariana. Until then, Ariana had no idea that her sister even kept a diary.

There has been no shortage of first-hand accounts of this horrific period in history, nor of films relating to the topic. With its haunting story of one young life irretrievably shattered and another tragically lost, Broken Dreams proves one of the most powerful.

Production company-distributor: Smoking Mirror Productions
Director-producer: Tomasz Magierski
Animators: Rafal Borowy, Jan Roguski
Director of photography: Maciej Magowski
Editors: Tomasz Magierski, Maciej Magowski
Composer: Guy Gross

70 minutes