Film Review: Life is Strange

Mixed-bag documentary packs an emotional wallop despite its failure to achieve its goals.

Isaac Hertz’s documentary Life is Strange undoubtedly has an impact, though it doesn’t fully succeed in what it sets out to do. Hertz, a first-time filmmaker, explains that over a lifetime he’s had a profound connection to his grandparents and other members of their generation who came of age in a pre-Holocaust Central European universe that no longer exists. His goal is to visualize, put an emotional handle on, and preserve as a kind of legacy their recollections of a vanished world. The impact of the Holocaust and the long shadows it casts are clearly present too, though not all the interviewees are Holocaust survivors and the thrust of the film is not the Holocaust, but what came before.

In light of Hertz’s purported aims and the personal nature of his mission, one anticipates a movie that explores the early lives of his grandparents and a few others who are, if not members of their circle, at least demographically similar. Instead, the 25 people who are interviewed include Israeli president Simon Peres, Israeli children’s author Uri Orlev, Nobel Prize winners Robert Aumann and Walter Kohn, Professor Peter Marcuse (son of the iconic leftist philosopher Herbert Marcuse), among notable rabbis, philanthropists, and accomplished professionals of one sort or another. It’s striking how many are seated in front of floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with books. Film clips of the Nobel Prize ceremonies in which Aumann and Kahn receive the coveted award are also included. A handful of more ordinary folk are profiled as well, some of whom may or may not be personally known to Hertz and/or producer Sammy Grundwerg. The broad sweep of interviewees is unprepared for and a tad puzzling.

Still, many of those who are interviewed emerge vividly. Some are matter-of-fact in tone; others are haunted. The close-ups are powerful. Life Is Strange is a neatly structured film and credit must go to the editors Alain Jakubowicz and Artem Zuev. Archival footage, home movies and visits to various historical sites are interspersed with the interviewees talking about everything from their religious—or non-religious—upbringings to their educations to their subtle and usually not so subtle encounters with anti-Semitism, which was simply a fact of life.

One woman recounts a song that Polish children were called upon to sing in school every day berating the Jews for killing Christ. Another describes Jews being rounded up in a locked synagogue that was then set on fire. Still another recalls the stunning brutality of Kristallnacht, which never ceases to shock no matter how often one has seen the footage of destroyed Jewish-owned businesses and the glass-strewn streets. Recollections of trains transporting Jews to concentration camps and the starved and beaten inmates inside those camps, all with accompanying newsreels, continue to pack an emotional wallop. The stories need to be told and remembered.

Nevertheless, the Holocaust footage is familiar and none of it sheds any new light on pre-World War II European Jewish life. The film would have had greater impact not simply with fewer, more homogenous interviewees, but also with a narrower, more original and personal focus: one man’s memory of smoking for the first time following his shtetl Bar Mitzvah or, most strikingly, Peres traveling back to his native town in Belarus in search of his childhood home. Nothing remains, short of the well. Peres stares at the well, seemingly transfixed, before slowly moving across the ground and taking a drink from it. The scene has the power of fine cinematic fiction.

There’s no shortage of pointed and poignant snippets in Life Is Strange, but somehow they get lost in the generic Holocaust material, powerful though it may be. A serious shortcoming is a child’s (or child-like) voiceover throughout asking naïve questions about what early 20th-century Central European Jewish life was like. One assumes it’s conceived as a structuring device. But regrettably, the questions themselves and, even more gratingly, the “innocent” little boy voice add nothing. They are off-putting.

Life Is Strange is a flawed work, but at the same time an ambitious and impressive undertaking for a newbie documentarian for whom it was a labor of love that took four years to pull together.