Inside Hana's Suitcase: Film Review

Menemsha Films
Documentary about young children learning the horrors of the Holocaust feels like an elaborate study aid.

Larry Weinstein’s documentary is based on the best-seller about a little Czech girl who was killed at Auschwitz and the suitcase that offered evidence of her fate.

Inside Hana’s Suitcase could well serve as a litmus test for one’s feelings about Holocaust-themed films. Larry Weinstein’s documentary based on the best-selling book by Karen Levine tells an undeniably moving tale of a little Czech girl who was killed at Auschwitz and the suitcase that provided vivid evidence of her fate. But its focus on adorable, modern-day schoolchildren being taught about atrocities, as well as the overuse of animation and cheesy re-enactments, smacks of contrivance. Subject matter this powerfully charged shouldn’t feel like a study aid.

The film’s protagonist is Fumiko Ishioka, the director of the Tokyo Holocaust Museum, who after a visit to Auschwitz requested materials to help Japanese children better understand the Holocaust. What she received was a battered suitcase painted with the words "Hana Brady, May 16, 1931" and “Waisenkind” (German of "orphan").

This led her and her students to research the story of Hana, who was sent to Terezin along with her brother George after the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Eventually the pair wound up in Auschwitz -- George survived, but Hana did not. 

Further investigation revealed that George was still alive and living in Canada. The elderly man’s anguished recollections of the circumstances that led to his sister’s annihilation form the most moving parts of the film.

Unfortunately, we hear less from him than we do the many children on display (from the Czech Republic and Canada as well as Japan), whose comments about the little girl’s fate necessarily reflect their youthful, unsophisticated perspectives. The intentions are certainly admirable -- although one might question the need for children this young to be exposed to such horrors -- but the reality is that their contributions are more distracting than illuminating. And the ironic twist to the true-life tale that is revealed at the film’s conclusion only adds to the feeling of being manipulated. 

Opened April 18 (Menemsha Films)

Director: Larry Weinstein

Screenwriter: Thomas Wallner

Producers: Rudolf Biermann, Jessica Daniel, Larry Weinstein

Director of photography: Horst Zeidler

Editor: David New

Music: Alexina Louis, Alex Pauk

Not rated, 90 min