The Holocaust will always be one of the darkest periods in humanity’s history. The very thought of it conjures horrific images of human suffering and death, rendering any contextual ideas of hope and life as something truly alien. Yet stories of resistance and survival exist, punctuating the seemingly interminable darkness with rays of light. Inside Hana’s Suitcasecelebrates the remarkable story of how the life of one little girl touched the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of people and united strangers from around the world in a single cause. While the presentation is a mixed bag, the journey is emotionally stirring throughout and well worth watching.
In 2000, Fumiko Ishioka, the Director of the Tokyo Holocaust Museum, received from the Auschwitz Museum a battered briefcase belonging to Hana Brady: a young, Jewish girl who was sent to Thereisenstadt when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939. Hana piqued the interest of Fumiko as well as of her small class of Japanese students known as the Small Wings, and Fumiko became determined to learn more about Hana. Fumiko’s investigation led her to travel to Europe, but her discoveries reached all the way to Canada, reuniting family members with a deeply personal history that was once thought lost. Inside Hana’s Suitcase is a hybrid presentation of drama and documentary by director Larry Weinstein.
There are several filmmaking choices that make Inside Hana’s Suitcase truly remarkable. First, when select old pictures are being viewed, a neat effect is employed that pulls these 2-D images into three dimensions, separating the foreground from the background. These extra steps and more that the filmmakers took to engage the audience definitely shows. Also, while the film is a documentary, featuring the requisite interviews with the pertinent people involved, the film goes one step further and presents reenactments of Hana’s life – all wonderfully captured by cinematographer Horst Zeidler. Not only do the dramatizations look authentic in its black and white color palette tinged with anemic sepia, but the casting is spot on with amazing lookalikes. The reenactments truly help breathe new life into Hana’s story and offer something refreshing in the world of documentaries.
Another inspired choice is highlighted once some of Hana’s artwork is discovered. In a wonderful moment of putting CGI to creative use, the crude drawings slowly spring to life as the camera zooms in on them. Later, as Fumiko walks the very landscapes Hana drew, her artwork fills the scenery, giving viewers rare insight into how Hana might have seen the world.
Not all of the choices work as beautifully as others, unfortunately. While many documentaries have a narrator to provide cohesion and context to the various interviews and archival footage, Inside Hana’s Suitcase opts to use school children. At first, it seems fitting that children should tell a child’s story, but it becomes clear that the children don’t really grasp the gravity of what they’re talking about. This is especially evident later in the film as the tale grows darker and Hana’s plight becomes graver. It’s jarring to have a child set up the context of an interview in unemotional rote and then immediately follow that with a Holocaust survivor breaking down in tears. Thankfully, however, the adults do the heavy lifting when the content takes a serious turn.
Despite a few niggling complaints, the spirit of the film shines through. Inside Hana’s Suitcase is a powerful film that shares a story everyone can appreciate. No matter the odds and obstacles, humans were meant to survive and to endure. In Hana Brady’s case, her legacy outlasted her life, immortalizing her in print and film and in the actions and thoughts of everyone who learns about her and rejects the errors of the past.