Every filmmaker seems to think they can make their Holocaust movie different from the rest, yet almost all fall into the usual traps of emotional manipulation and sentimentalization, tripped up by the difficulties posed by the sheer banality of evil. Sadly, the whimsically idiosyncratic director Aleksey Fedorchenko and his distinctive storytelling techniques succumb to many of the genre’s pitfalls with this tedious tale of a 6-year-old Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis in a chimney. While shot in an interestingly subjective (though often murky) manner, with occasional moments of stark visual power, “Anna’s War” is more a patience tester than a poignant rollercoaster ride. Fedorchenko’s customary fantastic leaps of logic simply don’t work in this context, and the film will go down as a very minor entry in his career.
There’s a grim potency to the initial shots of naked, pallid limbs half-buried in freshly turned earth, made even more horrific with the realization that Anna (Marta Kozlova) is alive and needs to release herself from her dead mother’s arm in order to climb out of the killing field. A series of short scenes give nightmare-like flashes of what happens next: She’s in a peasant hut, ignored by its occupants, then dragged across a blasted field and over to a former school building, now Nazi regional headquarters. The script, by Natalya Meschaninova (“Arrhythmia”) and Fedorchenko fails to explain how Anna arrives in her hiding place in that building on a small ledge within a chimney flue, several feet off the ground.
A striking shot of her peering down into the fireplace, her little fingers grasping the ledge, gives her a haunting bat-like appearance; in another sequence, as she opens her mouth to let rain water quench her thirst, her tiny bones and pale taut skin make her seem more like a bird. She is a pathetic figure, already feral in her behavior as she glimpses people in the room through chinks in a mirror hanging against the cracked chimney-facing. From this perch she watches women flirting with Nazi soldiers (stereotypically cruel even to their dogs), collaborators and others using the room for reasons as unclear to Anna as they are to the viewer.
Each night she ventures out of the chimney to explore the building, though seemingly only one room at a time. There’s an art studio with écorché models and animal skeletons that would make most children shudder; instead she avidly drinks water from a jar used to clean paint brushes. She scavenges the crumbs from rat traps, sucks the glue paste from book bindings, and cleverly captures a pigeon in the rafters which she roasts over a flame. She even disembowels a taxidermied wolf and makes a cloak of its fur. Apparently the one kind of room not in this building is a bathroom, though surely the Nazi occupiers (and the students before the invasion) made use of the facilities somewhere.
That’s just one of many bothersome questions arising from little Anna’s two-year concealment. We’re meant to be impressed by her ingenuity, her drive to survive an unthinkable ordeal, yet why does she take so much time to explore the building? Why has she decided that remaining in the chimney, with the constant threat of starvation, is a safer place than risking the outside world? The answer clearly lies in Fedorchenko’s desire to milk sympathy out of this situation while using confined spaces, but it’s so patently false that each of Anna’s actions provokes incredulity rather than distress. By the time the little girl, mute throughout the film, finally breaks down and cries, there isn’t even a sense of relief. A phantasmagoric scene of a Nazi Christmas banquet, the tree decorated with glittering swastikas and the table boasting a goat skeleton as a centerpiece, may fit with the director’s penchant for the unexpected, but its oddity only underlines how out of place it is.
Visually, the film privileges a sensorial, subjective look, including p.o.v. shots as Anna stares out of the distorting fissures of her hiding place. This gloomy intensity suits the confining atmosphere in which Anna never truly sees the light of day, forming the most interesting element in an otherwise wearisome entry in the constant tide of Holocaust-themed films. Occasional snippets of dissonant music unnecessarily contribute to the overall bleakness.