Film Review: Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh

While the method of shooting is imaginative, this frustrating documentary fails to reveal how its subject planned to rescue Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust, nor does it offer visceral proof of her bravery.

When you think of important women throughout the world, what names comes to mind? Sally Ride, the first woman in space? Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to receive an M.D. degree? Pearl Buck, first female winner of a Nobel? Joan of Arc, who led the French to resist the English invasion of 1429? Sandra Day O’Connor, whose vote put George Bush into power? (OK, forget that one.)

Here’s one female hero most people don’t know. Outside of today’s Israel, the name Hannah Senesh will draw blank stares. Yet she was a woman who, like Joan of Arc, was captured, tortured and executed, who unlike most women we consider possessing greatness put her life on the line for her noble beliefs. So: Hannah Senesh. Still doesn’t strike a bell? See Blessed Is the Match, then, to discover her background as a poet and songwriter, the love her mother bore for her, and her passion for the land of Israel. What you won’t get, unfortunately, is much insight into her mission as a British-trained paratrooper—i.e., how she intended to carry out some vague plan to rescue Hungarian Jews even after the male paratroopers backed out, and how she refused under torture to reveal a transmitter code to Hungarian Nazi thugs. In short, the blood has been drained from the film not long after it begins.

The most interesting aspect of Blessed Is the Match—that title coming from one of the vast array of poems composed by Senesh as early as the age of seven—is the way director Roberta Grossman sets up the documentary. Instead of interviewing a crew of talking heads who sit in their chairs and reminisce about the bad old days, Grossman has performers re-enact key events in Senesh’s life, all without dialogue, the goings-on simply narrated by Joan Allen. What’s more, she weaves actual archival films into the deliberately grainy drama, occasionally depicting the actors side by side with photos of the real people they portray.

With Meri Roth in the title role, Marcela Nohyrkova as Hannah’s mother Catherine, and an assortment of actors in the roles of historians, intellectuals and nephews, Grossman and writer Sophie Sartain lead us into the life of Budapest’s assimilated Jewish community—doctors, lawyers, teachers and the like. Focusing on Senesh from the age of seven when she is virtually Budapest’s poet-laureate, Allen narrates a number of scenes from Hannah’s life, highlighting her Zionist idealism as manifested by her journey without her mother to the British mandate of Palestine. There she worked the fields as did thousands of other Jewish chalutzim (pioneers) irrespective of their professions back in Europe, writing home regularly, hoping that her mother would be able to join her in her new land. Her idealism led her to train with 31 other Jewish-Palestinian parachutists in Egypt, culminating in a parachute jump into Yugoslavia, where the men and one woman hoped to head across the border to Hungary.

This mission is billed as the only military attempt to rescue European Jews during World War II. But how was this mission to be accomplished? Did Hannah plan to scoop up the Jewish population, now wearing yellow stars during the coup which ousted Prime Minister Hortha and substituted the pro-Nazi hoodlums of Hungary’s Arrow Cross? She carried a radio transmitter to relay messages to her British trainers, but we do not see her employing the machine, there is no re-enactment of her arrest at the border, nor do we have an inkling that she was tortured other than hearing a prisoner ask why she is missing some teeth.

Imprisoned after her arrest (and soon joined by her mother), Hannah is put on trial, where she delivers an impassioned argument to the judges about the imminent end of the war when the men in robes will themselves be judged. She is not immediately sentenced but, we are told, taken out suddenly and executed by a firing squad without the bourgeois justice of a conviction.

What’s needed here is the visceral impact that a Hollywood-style Holocaust picture can deliver—something like Edward Zwick’s Defiance, with Natalie Portman as its hero. But Blessed Is the Match is bereft of such emotion and fire.