by Jordan King
British documentarian Sam Hobkinson’s Misha and the Wolves, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Documentary Competition strand, is a constantly shapeshifting, twisting, turning documentary that deconstructs the truth and lies of one Misha Defonseca, forming in the process a compelling investigation into the very art of storytelling itself.
The story of Misha Defonseca is a remarkable, utterly unbelievable one on several levels. The first unbelievable story is that of her as the brave Jewish woman who sold her story of Holocaust survival to the world, winning the hearts and sympathy of millions with her tale of survival as she outran the Nazis in search of her arrested and deported parents. In the entr’acte of Hobkinson’s film, this is the story we first learn.
Having moved to Massachussets in the mid-80s, Defonseca enraptured her neighbours with stories of how she fled the Nazis at six years old, living alongside wolves and fending for herself for four years as she crossed from Belgium to the Ukraine. Perceiving a mythic quality in Defonseca’s tale of bravery, a friend convinced her to write a memoir and get her story out into the world. This is exactly what she did. Gaining fame, film deals, and a slot on Oprah, Misha’s story stunned the world and inspired an international outpouring of love and awe. Selling millions of copies in over 20 languages, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years was a too-good-to-be-true story that was so unbelievable you couldn’t make it up. We collectively called her story unbelievable in the way you do when you are amazed by a true story of odds being defied and human spirit prevailing.
The second, far more stunning unbelievable story is that of Monique Dewael. Born in Etterbeek, Belgium, and raised Catholic, Monique’s parents were resistance members, imprisoned and then slain by the Nazis, which forced her to live with her grandparents among a community who knew her as ‘The Traitor’s Daughter’. Monique’s father gave away secrets whilst imprisoned that led to the captures and deaths of many resistance members.
Monique Dewael created Misha Defonseca and fabricated the first unbelievable story as a coping mechanism, or as an escape, or as a grand illusion of an equally horrific but alternate traumatic truth. The lies she told were monstrous, yet still are the product of a woman who grew up knowing her parents were murdered by yet more monstrous beings, a consideration that Hobkinson allows room to percolate with his unbiased, indiscriminate documentative approach. The scale and depth of Dewael’s duplicity are head spinning, and the way it was unearthed even moreso.
Through a librarian detective investigation, genealogical interrogation, and a hunch that something was amiss from a publisher who found herself sued for $22.5m by Dewael/Defonseca, a web of lies and deception as well as self-deception comes unspun and undone in terrific fashion. As holes are poked in Defonseca’s narrative and her doubters push themselves further and further in search of definite proof of their suspicions for fear of being labelled as holocaust deniers and heartless monsters themselves, the story of how Misha’s story crumbled is almost as fantastical and unbelievable as the fact the memoir itself was a falsehood.
With a directorial style that begs a Netflix distribution deal, such is its enmeshing of sensationalist presentation – behind the scenes shots and dramatic reconstructions and the like – and forensically researched and presented information, Hobkinson’s film is an engrossing dissection of storytelling, the stories we tell each other, the stories we tell ourselves, and why we tell them. The further down the rabbit hole we are taken, the harder it is to find a way out of this warped world Hobkinson documents, and the harder it is to hold onto any sense of an absolute moral truth to the tale. By the film’s close, which poignantly affords an actual Holocaust survivor the respect and courtesy of having the final word, one would be forgiven for feeling shattered in several senses.
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, but here we see a compelling case being made that the fictions we form in the place of the truth can oftentimes be far, far stranger. Misha and the Wolves is a film not to be missed.
Misha & the Wolves played as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2021