When she was seven years old, Misha Defonseca escaped from her foster parents and lived in the woods, avoiding Nazis and befriending wolves to survive. She was a Holocaust survivor. This story sold millions of books and moved millions of people. But, it was all fake.
Sam Hobkinson’s documentary “Misha and the Wolves” explains the complicated story behind Misha’s lie. And if, like me, you’ve never heard of her or her book, the twists and turns will keep you glued to your screen.
The film starts with an explanation of the origins of Misha’s rise to fame. An animal-loving Belgian immigrant living in Massachusetts, Misha earned the sympathy of her community after narrating her own harrowing story of survival with wolves. This also caught the attention of Jane Daniel, a small-time publisher looking for the next great book.
But what looked like initial success that managed to attract attention from Oprah and Disney quickly fell apart when Misha refused to keep working with Daniel and even sued her. This is when the story turns into a revenge-led investigation to dig into the truth. After the lawsuit destroyed her life, Daniel found some clues on the falsehood of Misha’s tale and soon received help from a real Holocaust survivor named Evelyne Haendel and a genealogist named Sharon Sergeant to get to the bottom of the case.
Hobkinson’s handling of the detective work is engaging. He uses fast editing, dramatic music, some great footage from the interviews and a police-like stringboard gimmick to untie the knots and explain the research process step by step. Then, as we get close to the truth, the director reveals his own astute technique used to manipulate the audience.
But surprises keep coming hard and fast. Just after a big dose of truth, we get another shocking reveal, now involving the real life story of Misha’s family. The material was there for the taking, and Hobkinson wisely put it all together to create a riveting film.
Misha’s wild wolf-befriending, Nazi-stabbing tale doesn’t quite sound convincing, and the documentary does a poor job of justifying the people that belived in it. It does, however, use an abundant amount of footage to show how moved and convinced the audiences were by this story.
However, the film only briefly explores themes of exploitation and accountability. There are some reflections on how greed was the monster that created Misha’s web of lies, as well as a tiny explanation made by a Holocaust expert on how the concept of “redemption” for Misha is laughable. The reveals are shocking and more than enough to keep you entertained, but the lack of meditation on the dangers of truth manipulation and blind faith made the whole thing feel like a wasted opportunity to create a stronger documentary.
“Misha and the Wolves” is the incredible true story behind an incredible fake story. This is an engrossing and smartly assembled documentary whose abundant reveals and shocks will be more than enough to keep audiences highly entertained. However, it does feel like a wasted opportunity to talk about the dangers of truth manipulation and blind faith; a thoughtful meditation of this could’ve forged an even stronger documentary.
“Misha and the Wolves” had its premiere at Sundance 2021. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram for more coverage of the festival.
Ricardo is a Mexico City based bilingual writer, digital animation graduate and awards season nerd. He also enjoys pro wrestling, is a Paddington fan and is the founder of the film website “La Estatuilla.”