An odd assortment of elderly Jews, including some Holocaust survivors, reminisce about their childhood in pre-WWII Europe and life during the war, in garrulous indie docu “Life Is Strange” from non-pro tyro helmer Isaac Hertz. Structured as a stream-of-consciousness conversation propelled by faux-naive questions from an unseen boy narrator, the film taps strong period footage to illustrate the speakers’ anecdotes. Most powerful are the accounts of anti-Semitism and time spent in concentration camps. Current limited theatrical opening should build name recognition before the pic settles into its more natural habitat of Jewish circuit play.
In the generic sense, this type of documentary has been made multiple times, with more rigor and more compelling results. Still, even though “Life Is Strange” smacks of a vanity production, the interviewees it includes represent a fast-disappearing generation whose roots vanished during the war; the film gives them a final opportunity to remember their early lives and the lives of their parents and grandparents. Many of the generation scarred by war never spoke about their past to their immediate offspring, so for those not previously exposed to stories and photos describing and documenting the decimation of Jewish life in territories under German control, it provides a time capsule of sorts.
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One of the film’s main drawbacks is that no criteria are apparent for how — apart from an obvious willingness to talk — the 25 interviewees were chosen. Among them are Nobel prize-winning academics Robert Aumann and Walter Kohn, celebrated author Uri Orlev, Israeli President Shimon Peres, several rabbis and representatives of the Hasidic community. Their homelands include Germany, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus.
Topics include mothers and fathers, Jewish holidays and rituals, ultra orthodox vs. liberal Jewish traditions, school and Zionism. The subject matter darkens with accounts of anti-Semitism, the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria by Germany), Kristallnacht (when all synagogues in Germany were destroyed), the physical devastation wrought by the war, and deportation to ghettos and concentration camps. Memories of liberation by Allied Forces and immigration to Israel and America wrap up the overlong talkfest.
While the editing team of Alain Jakubowicz and Artem Zuev mostly do a nice job of dividing the anecdotes into easily digestible chunks, and finding visuals to aptly illustrate them, they also make some clunky decisions, such as inclusion of footage from the Nobel ceremonies honoring Aumann and Kohn. Although Zachary Cirino’s voiceover narration as the young boy wondering about his grandfather’s life helps provide structure, his commentary is cringe-worthy.
Apart from some family snapshots, and powerful photos by Roman Vishniac, whose daughter Mara is one of the interviewees, most of the archival visuals don’t relate directly to the people being interviewed, but rather are drawn from era-appropriate materials at the Bundesfilmarchiv, Yivo, the Imperial War Museum, the National Center for Jewish Film, the Israeli Broadcasting Film Archive and Steven Spielberg’s Film and Video Archive at the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
The contempo talking-heads lensing, shot by a variety of cameramen, allows viewers to clearly see the emotions of the animated, articulate subjects. Sound quality is variable, and subtitles are provided for interviewees with heavy accents.