Describing what “Steal a Pencil for Me” is about might actually do a disservice to this affectionately observed documentary. Indeed, some auds are bound to be irrecoverably turned off by the very notion of a pic involving a man who intros himself thusly: “I’m a very special Holocaust survivor. I was in the camps with my wife and my girlfriend — and believe me, it wasn’t easy.” Fortunately, helmer Michele Ohayon (“Cowboy del Amor”) treats her tricky subject matter with sufficient sensitivity to keep doc from ever seeming offensively flip or overly sentimental. Global tube exposure awaits after limited theatrical play.
It helps a lot that Ohayon has subjects as vibrantly engaging as Jack Polak and Ina Soep, an elderly but animated Jewish couple. Married for 60 years, they vividly recall their chance meeting at a party in their native Holland — at a time when Jack, though still married, already was considering divorce — and their reunion shortly afterward as prisoners in a concentration camp near the Dutch village of Westerbork (the same camp, pic duly notes, where Anne Frank and her family were held before their deportation to Auschwitz).
Manja, Jack’s wife, also was imprisoned there. And while she, too, had soured on their marriage, she vigorously objected to her husband’s dalliance with another woman. But that didn’t keep Jack and Ina from maintaining a discreet yet ardent courtship — and exchanging the many passionate letters that inspired the pic’s title — during their long months at Westerbork and, later, Bergen-Belsen.
Ina and (especially) Jack provide fascinating running commentary on Ohayon’s well-crafted assemblage of archival photos and footage. (Actors Jeroen Krabbe and Ellen Ten Damme effectively read selections from the couple’s letters.) Their unaffected charm and blunt-spoken candor as storytellers — and their obvious love for each other, evident in glimpses of their contemporary lives in Manhattan — serve pic well.
The couple is so engaging, and their tale so gripping, that only rarely does a viewer pause to wonder how very different the now-deceased Manja’s recollections might be.