Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh
Dir. Roberta Grossman
At the press screening for Blessed is the Match, a documentary about a Hungarian Jew who participated in the only Allied attempt to help European Jews during World War II, some fellow film critics were discussing movie news of the day, such as Oscar shortlists and recently seen films. As the talk shifted from the new Bond film ("That wasn't James Bond -- I don't know what it was, but it wasn't James Bond"), they began sharing opinions about the film we were about to see. I overheard one gentleman sigh, “There have been so many, it’s like, 'Oh, God, another Holocaust film.'” I briefly traded a look with a girl my age, but I'm unsure she got my message of bafflement -- she may have thought I was just making eyes at her.
I’m sure this fellow critic didn’t mean to be offensive, and, in fact, I think we can all agree with the sentiment. The number of films about the quiet, forgotten heroics of men and women during World War II obviously trumps that of similar stories about people in, say, the Second Congo War or the War of Austrian Succession. Certainly, the breadth of the war has something to do with it, as well as both the mythologizing that has occurred and the stakes of the war’s continued effects. And in terms of filmmaking, a period that captured the energy, devotion, hopes, and fears of much of the world is replete with stories to tell. But my colleagues' conversation was also part of a simmering distrust of such films, evidence of a cynical attitude that if you make a Holocaust film, it's because you're seeking awards and acclaim.
But I don’t think Blessed is the Match is one of those cynical films shooting for accolades. Director Roberta Grossman seems sincerely passionate about telling the story of Hannah Senesh, a bourgeois Hungarian Jewish girl who lost her father early and came of age in a time of anti-Semitic Arrow Cross fascism that inspired in her a redoubled identification with Judaism. Using her diary and other firsthand sources, the film quotes her enthusiasm in proclaiming herself a Zionist and her intentions to move to Palestine to work on a kibbutz. Her mother, left alone in Budapest, frets over her absent daughter, as well as Hungary’s new alliance with Nazi Germany, but believes reuniting would be too difficult. However, the British Government, then administrating the Palestinian territories, begins recruiting Jews in the area to participate in dangerous missions across occupied Europe. With news of ghettos and extermination camps trickling in, many are eager to go, including Hannah, who becomes a paramilitary paratrooper, learning to fire a gun and operating a radio.
Unfortunately, here is where the documentary loses its way, through no real fault of its own. Hannah’s diaries and letters dry up, and there are no pictures to be found, so when she is eventually captured and tortured by Hungarian fascists, we see the whole thing play out through reenactments. The recreations can't elicit the same sympathy as grainy, black-and-white photographs of a young, sweet girl studying Hebrew or smiling happily as she leans against a hoe in a desolate Levant farm. And certainly, the dramatizations do not speak as well as Hannah’s poetry: "God, may there be no end/ To sea, to sand, water’s splash, lightning’s flash/ The prayer of man.” Occasionally, a still-living, octogenarian acquaintance of Hannah’s recalls her strength while in the Gestapo’s clutches, but the juxtaposition of these reminiscences with the reenactments is awkward. Softening the drama further is Joan Allen, as the voice of Hannah’s mother. Despite her talent, Allen doesn’t convey the fear, insecurity, or sense of loss appropriate to a grieving mother. She instead comes off as nothing more than a voice reading a stranger’s diary.
I am reminded of my visit to the Anne Frank house during a trip to Amsterdam. I walked up the stairs to the Secret Annex, full of trepidation and anticipation. But when I entered the tiny space to look at the aged walls under plexiglass, I felt nothing if not distant from Frank and then anger at my absence of tears. There is nothing to compare to her diary, where a girl long dead is so alive and full of confusion and hope for the future. Blessed is the Match was, for me, just like the Secret Annex. The film and its reenactments are simply too distant to evoke the very human and harrowing story Grossman wishes to tell. Hannah and her mother remain intangible, remote, and lost somewhere in the past.