There are illicit love affairs and then there's Jack and Ina. When we meet them, they've been married for 60 years and are as deeply in love with each other as they were the day they met. But it wasn't always roses and chocolates. In fact, when they first laid eyes on each other in 1943, at a mutual friend's birthday party, Jack was locked in a joyless marriage with a Dutch socialite named Manja. But that wasn't the worst of the lovers' problems. In fact, that would be a little thing called the Nazi occupation.
Michèle Ohayon's Steal a Pencil for Me kicks things off with the now-elderly Jack quipping, "I'm a very special Holocaust survivor. I was in the camps with my wife and my girlfriend; and believe me, it wasn't easy."
The comment pretty much sets the stage for Jack and Ina's incredible story. When this fractious love triangle ends up imprisoned at Westerbork concentration camp, both the marriage and, miraculously, the love affair continue. At first, Ina and Jack are able to steal away for evening walks and brief moments of affection. Manja's jealousy and the increasing harshness of the camps, however, quickly drive them apart, leaving the lovers to communicate through letters. Eventually transferred to notorious Bergen-Belsen, the three narrowly avoid the fate of 90 percent of their fellow inmates, the ovens of Auschwitz. And against all odds, not only do they survive, but their love affair continues.
It's a remarkable story in a less-than-remarkable film. Unfortunately, director Ohayon reduces Jack and Ina's tale to romantic melodrama, filling her documentary with schmaltzy music, gauzy montages and embarrassingly bad voiceovers of their love letters (read by actors better suited for radio soap opera). The approach is doubtlessly sincere and heartfelt, but Ohayon's choices simplify and undermine the harrowing reality of the situation, mistaking sentiment for poignancy. Faced with unimaginable miseries, Ina and Jack's small gestures should've illustrated the profound human tragedy that surrounded them, creating a true testament to love and survival. Instead, the film's adoring stylizations and shrewish depictions of Manja (who was alive during filming but inexplicably excluded) cheapen the story.
The documentary's best moments come when the aged lovers recount their traumatic experiences. Honest and unadorned, their recollections give power to their experiences in ways no cinematic trick could. Addressing a group of grade-schoolers on a field trip, Jack and Ina make crystal clear the brutal lessons of their past, simultaneously warning and offering hope to a generation untouched by the horrors of genocide. You can't help but wish that Ohayon had taken her cue from candid moments like these and delved deeper — that she had the courage to confront this inspirational couple's pain and suffering as well as to honor their storybook romance.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 27, 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 28-29, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 30. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.