Film Review: Inside Hana's Suitcase

<i>Inside Hana&#8217;s Suitcase</i> is a documentary with a compelling story of discovery, yet so staged and misconceived that it never achieves the life-affirming quality it should possess.

Inside Hana’s Suitcase, based on the nonfiction children’s book Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine, is ostensibly about Hana Brady, a 13-year-old Czechoslovakian girl who perished at Auschwitz. Like the book, Larry Weinstein’s documentary moves between past and present in its attempt to connect the audience to Holocaust-era Europe, and to the anti-Semitism that led to Hana’s demise, and that of millions of other Jewish children. School-age girls and boys recount much of Hana’s story in the film, although their segments are obviously scripted and, with few exceptions, entirely devoid of emotion. The present-day efforts to revive Hana’s legacy are recounted in interviews with George Brady, Hana’s brother and a Holocaust survivor, and Fumiko Ishioka, director of the Tokyo Holocaust Museum, who contacted George soon after receiving a battered piece of luggage.

Ishioka was sent Hana’s suitcase by the Auschwitz Museum, which we later learn fabricated it to look like the one the girl had brought to the concentration camp. The suitcase appears in a photograph of Hana taken when she arrived at Auschwitz from the Theresienstadt Ghetto. The chilling purpose of that photograph is never explored in the documentary, nor is the prospect of being connected to a young girl, or to a historical moment, as the documentary’s title suggests, through the contents of her suitcase. Also not broached are the reasons why Hana and George, who were orphans by then, were abandoned by their Christian uncle; in a rather gruesome dramatization, he paints Hana’s name on the suitcase, along with the German word for orphan.

In the end, Inside Hana’s Suitcase offers anecdotes, rather than a clear picture of Hana’s life in pre-World War II Czechoslovakia. A persistent score, mostly soaring violins, fills in for the pathos absent in the documentary, except when George opens a box that contains gifts sent to him and Hana by their mother, who was in a concentration camp at the time. Like many of George’s memories, this one is reduced to a dramatization, severing any possibility that the audience will experience the human connection to the past that he represents. George never discussed the Holocaust with his children, and while the documentary affords him that opportunity in the service of recounting Hana’s story, his survivor’s guilt is far more palpable and turns us in a different direction entirely—for the most part, away from Hana.

Similarly, Ishioka’s presence, and that of her young students at the museum in Tokyo, add yet another dimension that, rather than connecting us to Hana, objectifies her as a pedagogical tool for planting in young minds the evils of intolerance. One wonders, peering at their earnest faces, whether our attack on Hiroshima is not a better object lesson and, anticipating such a reaction, Weinstein includes an interview with a Japanese survivor who thinks the bomb was justified given Japan’s role in World War II. It is a jarring moment that undermines everything the documentary purports to be about, one in which we realize that the filmmakers may not view that slaughter of Japanese civilians as another holocaust.

Near the end of Inside Hana’s Suitcase, George Brady and his daughter visit Auschwitz together in a sequence so staged that no emotions remain which might have been unleashed when George first received Ishioka’s letter. Similar scenes unfold in Lisa Gossels’ Children of Chabannes (2000), in which the filmmaker and her father return to the village where he and his brother, and hundreds of other Jewish children, were hidden from the Nazis. Propelled by the desire of a survivor’s daughter to know her family and, by extension, her place in the world, that documentary, and the sequences chronicling the return to Chabannes, where many other children died, constitute a life-affirming journey. Ironically, in this misconceived documentary, only Ishioka displays that sort of passion for uncovering history—and we never learn why Hana touched her so deeply.