Like many recent WWII/Holocaust-themed docus, Esther Hoffenberg's "The Two Lives of Eva" chronicles a personal quest -- to understand her late mother's mental illness. Surprising, deeply intelligent pic could garner limited arthouse release.

Like many recent WWII/Holocaust-themed docus, Esther Hoffenberg’s “The Two Lives of Eva” chronicles a personal quest — to understand her late mother’s mental illness. The story gradually emerging from a deftly sequenced patchwork of audio tapes, newsreels, photos, letters and on-camera interviews proves as fascinating in its particulars as it is complex in its sociopolitical implications: the daughter of a prominent German industrialist family in Poland becomes a Jewish wife and mother in France. With every revelatory dollop tantalizingly dropped into conversation or discovered in archival documents, the composite family portrait constantly metamorphoses. Surprising, deeply intelligent pic could garner limited arthouse release.

Building backward from audio tapes made by Eva just before her mental breakdown, docu ranges through various countries and languages. Relatives and childhood friends relate the charmed life Eva led in Poland as the favorite daughter of the legendary Lambrecht family. Her radiant vitality made her as popular with women as she was irresistible to men.

The German occupation had little effect on the privileged Aryan clan, though the family, internally, splintered: Eva’s only brother went MIA at the Russian front while her only sister “disappeared in the snow.”

Strangely, the narrative of Eva’s life seems to unravel as it unfolds: The various witnesses show a remarkable ability to accept bizarre anomalies as perfectly normal when it comes to the powerful Lambrechts. This split between harrowingly traumatic events and the family’s unquestioned social acceptance is uneasily communicated to the viewer and sets the stage for Eva’s later breakdown.

The nostalgia-waxing interviewees also set the stage for the pivotal turning point that divided Eva’s life in two: her marriage to the filmmaker’s father, Sam Hoffenberg, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. Over images of devastated postwar Germany, Eva’s disembodied voice recalls the shock of her wedding night when her new husband told her of the camps. Recreating herself in light of that terrible epiphany, Eva converted to Judaism with, as the filmmaker puts it, “… all the rigor of her Protestant upbringing.”

But the past, undiscussed and unreconciled in an emigre Paris which sought only to forget, return in Eva’s episodes of dementia and disorientation.

At the same time, within the documentary, new revelations constantly pop up to dislocate previous testimony. Hoffenberg, veteran of some 50 documentaries, none of them personal prior to this one, brings a new, diffracted perspective to history as questions persistently multiply rather than resolve.

Tech credits are impressive, particularly in the dreamlike montages of black-and-white newsreel footage, photographs and home movies.

The Two Lives of Eva

France

Production

A Les Films du Poisson production in co-production with Arte France/Lapsus. (International sales: Les Films du Poisson, Paris.) Produced by Yael Fogel. Directed, written by Esther Hoffenberg.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, DV), Laurent Fenart; editors, Anne Weil, Francoise Arnaud; sound designer, Eric Salleron. Reviewed at New York Jewish Film Festival, Jan. 18, 2006. Running time: 85 MIN. (French, German, English, Polish dialogue)
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