The suitcase of a girl killed in the Holocaust goes on to be revered by kids around the world decades later. Like all unlikely true stories, this one was destined to be told in every medium. And indeed, the story of Hana Brady's suitcase -- or more accurately, the story of its second act -- has inspired a radio series, a best-selling children's book (translated into 20 languages and counting), a play, and a faithful, if at times, bewildering, docudrama, "Inside Hana's Suitcase," which began a limited run in New York City theaters this Wednesday in honor of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).
Director Larry Weinstein's story is the same one told in Karen Levine's much-loved 2002 book, "Hana's Suitcase," of how a battered suitcase landed in the hands of Fumiko Ishioka, the director of Tokyo’s Holocaust Education and Resource Centre. The intriguing words painted on the case's surface, including "Hana Brady" and "Waisenkind," which is German for "orphan," led Ishioka and her students on a worldwide quest that ended with the discovery of Hana's older brother George, now a grandfather living in Canada. For the record, there is an entire movie waiting to be made on sprightly, 80-something-year-old George, whose scenes are the movie's loveliest and most devastating.
Whether Weinstein succeeds with the rest might come down to how old his audience is. His is an anomaly of the genre: a Holocaust movie made not for the Academy, but for children. If its liberal use of re-enactments and simplistic animation doesn't sit well with adults (and it may not; "creepy," "cloying," "off-putting" and "manipulative," are some of the words being used by critics), that's probably because the movie isn't about the Holocaust so much as it's about children who read a book about the Holocaust. The kids seem to love Hana and George in much the same way they might love Harry, or Katniss. That isn't to say Weinstein ignores reality. A scene re-staging George's boyhood life in the camps is a quietly remarkable feat of cinematic documentation, built from the details of a long-lost diary of George's, which, in another of the true story's fantastical twists, was found in a Czech dumpster during the movie's filming, according to Weinstein.
In the biggest nod to his audience, Weinstein chooses to have children narrate the story from beginning to end. A chorus of kids hailing from the book's three main settings, Czechoslovakia, Japan and Canada, act as omniscient storytellers, talking over each other at the most critical moments as if they're sharing a mic around a campfire. At times, they're startlingly intuitive. At other times, they're out of touch in a kids-say-the-darndest-things way that can seem to trivialize the horror of the camps. And yet, that naivete brings home, more than any slick filmmaking could, the heartbreaking fact that the Brady children were not allowed to be so.
WATCH a trailer for "Inside Hana's Suitcase":