STEAL A PENCIL FOR MENR
Director Michèle Ohayon (Cowboy Del Amor) didn't need to do much with Jack Polak and Ina Soep’s story: The beauty of Steal a Pencil for Me is represented by the protagonists' dignity in the face of evil. Still, the filmmaker elegantly documents both the past and the present with a measured yet heartfelt sincerity.
In 1943 Amsterdam, Jack, an unhappily married accountant, meets Ina, a young beauty from a wealthy family, and falls in love. Soon after, Jack, his wife Manja, and Ina are all deported and placed in the Westerbork Dutch transit camp. Manja becomes jealous of Ina and forbids Jack to see her, so Jack and Ina start writing a series of secret love letters.
Ultimately, Ina is sent to Westerbork and Jack is deported to Bergen Belsen, but they somehow survive and reunite in 1945, after World War II ends and Europe is liberated. Jack divorces Manja and marries his true love. They move to the U.S. and start a family. In 2000 the couple write the memoir Steal a Pencil for Me, and in 2006 they celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.
Of course, the real drama of the story takes place decades ago in the camp, where the odd triangle forms among Jack, Ina, and the curious character of Manja. In the background, their friends and fellow Jews are either tortured or killed or both, which should minimize the importance of the marital tension and secret love affair, but instead highlights the instinct for survival in the midst of profound sadness and senseless death.
Steal a Pencil for Me is at its best when Ohayon lets Jack and Ina talk about their experiences. The other highlights are some fascinating and very rare black-and-white film clips of musical performances by the camp prisoners. The re-enactment scenes and voiceovers are less successful because it is hard, if not impossible, to recreate the horrors of the Holocaust without resorting to iconographic cliché. (Note the use of barbed wire and trains chugging by.) So many other directors have tried and failed at picturing concentration camp life, Ohayon would have been better off sticking to just the archival footage.
As for historical interest, the film soberly recounts some of the lesser-known aspects of the Nazi occupation of Holland, though the humanistic "love conquers all" storyline naturally tends to dominate.
The title Steal a Pencil for Me leaves something to be desired, but one cannot help but be moved by the film itself. Rarely has so much devastating darkness given way to such a ray of hope.