Steal a Pencil for Me



South by Southwest

AUSTIN -- Few practitioners of fiction would dare to set a romance in a concentration camp. So it's surprising (and mildly disappointing) how normal it seems in "Steal a Pencil for Me," even considering other complications that add intrigue to the scenario. Warm-hearted and offering a fresh angle for Holocaust docus, the picture may be best suited for the small screen but could win champions on the fest circuit.

A feature adaptation wouldn't want us to know how the story ends, but here the "happily ever after" is the first thing we learn: We meet Jack and Ina as they celebrate their 60th anniversary in New York, surrounded by kids and grandkids and looking quite comfortable. Quickly, though, Jack is telling the story of their seemingly doomed courtship: Not only did the romance bloom within a concentration camp, where Nazi guards looked on and a curfew limited their time together, Jack was in fact already married, and his wife's bunk was just yards away from Ina's.

This factor, naturally, could be a stumbling block for viewers who've come to hear a sweet love story. But the film treats the first marriage as a trivial thing: Jack explains that Manja was an unreasonable woman, given to extreme mood swings, and that even before they were sent to Westerbork the pair had decided they would divorce as soon as the war ended. Self-serving or not, the story lets director Michele Ohayon (whose quirky "Cowboy del Amor" also offered courtships stripped of the usual sentiment) encourage us to root for Jack and Ina without guilt.

There isn't a whole lot to tell, though, about their courtship. Unable to spend much time together (propriety demanded that Jack continue to play the role of Manja's husband), they wrote each other letters and delivered them through third parties. Jack, the more mature of the pair, counseled Ina at length about how best to survive the war's uncertainties. After dark, they would stroll the camp's main avenue and sometimes find a spot for a little necking.

Westerbork, as depicted here, was considerably more livable than camps such as Auschwitz. The story gains drama, then, as we hear how 2,000 people a week were chosen to be shipped out to work camps. As Jack and Ina discuss their daily lives and attempts to stay off those weekly trains out, we get a feel for the lives of Dutch Jews during the war.

The film alternates between stock footage from the era and present-day material, like a trip the couple takes to visit the memorial at Westerbork. We see Jack's eagerness to lecture young children about the war, and get glimpses of the work he has done with organizations such as the Anne Frank Center. Some of the most interesting material shows Ina chatting with her daughter Margrit, who regrets not having heard more stories of the war as a child; viewers may leave wanting to know more about this relationship.

If the nature of the docu's romance never quite sweeps audiences off their feet, it at least provides a novel way to look at a topic that has been examined from nearly every other angle. "Steal a Pencil" reminds us how, for the lucky, normal life survived the horrific interruption of war.

Diamond Lane
Director: Michele Ohayon
Screenwriters: Michele Ohayon, Kate Amend
Producers: Michele Ohayon, Theo Van de Sande
Executive producer: Ted Sarandos
Director of photography: Theo Van de Sande
Music: Joseph Julian Gonzalez
Editor: Kate Amend
Running time -- 93 minutes
No MPAA rating