Film Review: NANA

A sometimes-captivating documentary, 'NANA' devotes too much screen time to its filmmaker and not enough to her Auschwitz-survivor grandmother who relates riveting tales of her wartime experiences.
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A sobering documentary, NANA is less riveting than one would expect, considering its fascinating subject: Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant (1920-2003), an Auschwitz survivor who devoted her later years to publicly speaking out about her atrocious wartime experiences. Unfortunately, filmmaker Serena Dykman lets the why get in the way of the what.

Instead of straightforwardly illuminating the gripping life story of Maryla, her maternal grandmother, throughout the film Dykman heavy-handedly underlines the reason why she made this documentary. Dykman’s mission was much the same as Maryla’s: to tell the story again and again to new generations of listeners, so as to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust are never forgotten or repeated. Yet to emphasize the passing down of that information from one generation to the next, Dykman repeatedly employs an irritating editing technique. She splits the telling of a single story among three different voices: hers, her mother’s and Maryla’s. For example, in archival footage from one of the several videotaped interviews excerpted in the film, we hear Maryla begin to relate a story. Then Dykman cuts to contemporary footage of her mother picking up the story where Maryla left off by reading from Maryla’s 2000 memoir, Memorial des Morts sans Tombeau. Finally, we shift to footage of the filmmaker herself—sometimes shot at the same location where the story occurred—and she finishes telling the tale. Though effective the first time, the technique detracts from the dramatic focus of the stories and contributes to the film’s off-putting tendency to spotlight the filmmaker rather than her subject.

The documentary’s opening image is a photograph, not of Maryla, but of Dykman as a newborn, and Dykman continues to appear frequently onscreen both as an interviewer—asking people who knew Maryla to share their memories of her—and as an interviewee, responding to questions about her own feelings. Whereas it’s certainly valuable to hear from different people who were inspired by Maryla’s tireless educational efforts—returning to Auschwitz, leading tour groups and sharing her experiences—the doc’s interviewees are not terribly interesting. They are not filmed in a visually compelling fashion, and their comments are banal, repetitive and more emotion-filled than informative.

Maryla, on the other hand, is captivating, yet whenever she’s not in the frame—which is about half the time—the film lags. When it became known that she was making this documentary, Dykman said, people sent her about 100 hours of archival footage of Maryla speaking. One wishes Dykman had included more of that footage in her film. Maryla was obviously a wise woman and a natural storyteller: Her tales are concisely told, character-driven, with just the right amount of detail, some humor, a clear point, and always marked by an irony that makes them food for continued thought and broad application. Her descriptions of walking for weeks through the snow on the infamous Death March, serving as Josef Mengele’s translator, and her many last-minute avoidances of getting sent to the gas chambers are horrifyingly beautiful. Her forthright answers to questions about Hitler, anti-Semitism, forgiveness, the Germans and why she was able to survive are profound. She survived because of thousands of random events, not because she was smarter or braver than anyone else, Maryla tells us. She describes the day she was liberated as “the saddest day of my life.” All of her family members had been killed. “There was no one who was happy I survived.”

Maryla was a star. Dykman just needed to let her shine.

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