In just five years, the Second World War annihilated a European Jewish culture that had thrived for centuries. Not just lives were wiped out in Hitler’s effort to solve the Jewish problem. A simpler way of life also disappeared as Europeans were scattered across the globe, from the United States to Palestine. But what would have happened had these people never left their homes in Poland and Germany? Where would we be today if there hadn’t been a war?
This question perplexed Isaac Hertz. The philosophy major and Talmudic scholar couldn’t figure out why he was drawn to his grandparent’s generation. “I felt as if there was a great ﬁssure that separated us from the past,” he explains in his director’s statement. “Like a lot of grandchildren of survivors I wonder more about the communities that no longer exist than I think about the war itself.”
What began as an attempt by Hertz and some of his friends to document their family history turned into feature-length documentary “Life is Strange.” With poignant interviews with displaced Jews from Israeli President Shimon Peres to Nobel Laureate Walter Kohn, the documentary explores what it once was to be Jewish in Europe, before the diaspora was controversially codified as a force separate from the Jewish State.
Nostalgic between tears and laughter and peppered with incredible archival footage of the period, “Life is Strange” enlivens the stories told by its 25 interviewees. Some are everyday reminiscence of happily growing up in poverty, while others recall the infamous Chofetz Chaim, or the casual anti-Semitism they themselves participated in, swept up in the Nazi machine. Some are famous while others are personal friends or family of the filmmakers. The movie is an extended intimate conversation framed as a one-sided interrogation of a grandfather that never answers.
The child narrator frames and refracts the childhood memories of the film’s subjects. While adults remember only suffering and loss, children recall the bright moments alongside the horror. As children’s book author and Holocaust survivor Uri Orlev relates, “Children remember differently than adults do.”
But—as Hertz admits at the beginning of the film—he is not a filmmaker, and this fact is, at times, painfully obvious. Shaky camerawork, unnecessary sound effects, awkward editing and fuzzy audio distract from the main thrust of the work.
However, if viewers can manage the learning curve, the film stands apart as a time capsule of fading generation. Beautifully thick Yiddish and Hebrew accents are subtitled for an assimilated generation unused to the cadence. Like “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” “Life is Strange” is wonderful both as a historical artifact and a text that invigorates collective cultural memory.
“Life is Strange” is still in the market for a distributor, though it is currently making the festival rounds and will enjoy a small Los Angeles release in the fall.