'Nana': Film Review

Courtesy of First Run Features
Riveting whenever its central figure is onscreen.
4/13/2018

Serena Dykman's documentary profiles her late grandmother Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant, a Holocaust survivor who served as a translator for Josef Mengele.

She passed away 15 years ago, but Holocaust survivor Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant feels very much alive in the documentary made by her granddaughter, Serena Dykman. Nana proves another valuable addition to the Holocaust documentary canon, exploring Maryla's important legacy in devoting much of her later years to educating people about the horrors she experienced and witnessed. Unfortunately, it loses some of its impact due to the filmmaker's insistence on too often injecting herself unnecessarily into the proceedings.

Much of the doc is composed of clips featuring Maryla recounting her story to school groups, academics, television interviewers and the like, as well as a 1994 interview for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. They are derived from some 100 hours of footage that Dykman, who was only 11 years old when her grandmother died, assembled for the project, and they are by far the most compelling aspect of the film.  

In one of the clips, Maryla says that she became motivated to speak publicly after becoming aware of the existence of Holocaust deniers. She soon began traveling the world talking to interested groups and frequently led tours of Auschwitz, where she had been imprisoned for several years. Maryla emerges as an articulate and moving speaker who also displays flashes of disarming humor. When one student asks her why she thought Adolf Hitler singled out the Jews for extinction, she replies in deadpan fashion, "Hitler didn't confide in me."

The most fascinating segment concerns her experiences working as a personal translator for the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, who she says was referred to by her and other prisoners as "the angel of death in white gloves." Mengele eventually became aware that she was translating selectively to protect fellow prisoners but was uncharacteristically tolerant. "You're a cunning woman, but be careful," he warned her. When one interviewer asks what she thought of Mengele, Maryla responds, in almost girlish fashion, "He was a handsome man!" before catching herself and declaring him to be a monster.

At another point during her time in the concentration camp, Maryla was assigned the job of sorting through the clothes of prisoners who had been killed. In the process, she came across her own mother's coat.

While the interview segments prove deeply moving, Nana suffers whenever its central figure is offscreen. Dykman expends much screen time explaining her motivations for making the film, which hardly seems necessary, and also explores her relationship with her mother through footage showing the two of them retracing Maryla's steps during the war. There are also numerous scenes showing both women reading excerpts from Maryla's memoirs aloud in a variety of locations when a simple voiceover would have been more effective. And too much time is devoted to interviews with people with whom Maryla interacted, few of whom have anything particularly revelatory to say.

Despite its stylistic flaws, Nana, and other films like it, are important. And they're only becoming more vital as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles. Eventually there will be none left, and we'll be forever grateful to survivors such as Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant for their courage and indomitable spirit.

Production companies: Adleek USA, Dyamant Pictures
Distributor: First Run Features
Director: Serena Dykman
Screenwriters: Serena Dykman, David Breger, Corentin Soibinet
Producers: Serena Dykman, Alice Michalowski, Stephane Dykman
Directors of photography: Nick Walker, Julia Elaine Mills
Editor: Corentin Soibinet
Composer: Carine Gutlerner

100 minutes