Since Serial became a podcast sensation, filmmakers and studios have sought the next big hit in true crime. However, this often leaves stories with unsubstantiated research in the name of a good story. In 2020, the New York Times had to retract its story on Caliphate after revealing the story was falsified. The rush to tell amazing stories can sometimes lead writers and editors astray, ignoring the obvious red flags. In the late 1990s, Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years took international markets by storm. Director Sam Hobkinson charts the legal battles and research that would follow over the next two decades. Misha and the Wolves uses reenactment new interviews to examine a tale that became an international fascination.
Misha and the Wolves tells the tale of Misha Defonseca, who went on a local radio show to share her story of Holocaust survival. As a young girl, her parents had been dragged to the camps, and she was left with a resentful family. Rather than stay, she fled to the woods, finding a surrogate family of wolves in the process. Her story of survival caught the attention of book publisher Jane Daniel. She believed Misha’s story could not only become a hit novel but would inspire millions. However, after the novel failed in America, the two began to feud in court. After Defonseca successfully won a lawsuit that would leave Daniel in financial ruin, Daniel began to investigate Misha’s story.
Hobkinson approaches the film with an eye on creating a thriller. The visuals and reenactments sell this truth early on, but they also trap Misha and the Wolves in a box. As the story evolves, the beats become all-too-familiar. Other than footage of wolves in the wilderness, many of the reenactments feel commonplace. By actively engaging with these tropes, much of the tension is drained out of the thriller aspects. While the results of the research can provide a surprise or two, Misha struggles to fulfill its promise.
Questions about truth and the lengths we go to find a place where we can gain acceptance loom over Misha. Misha’s stories about the wolves, the town’s lengths to promote her story, and the facts from additional research all point towards the importance of acceptance. We all experience tragedy in our lives, but we can find solace in the community. It is through these interpersonal and communal experiences that we can find a safe place. Hobkinson’s film is most successful when it examines that search and explores why we long for connection and what we will do when that place is denied to us. Unfortunately, Misha and the Wolves ties its arms behind its back with its true crime visuals. All the power this may have held becomes too formulaic for its own good.
ALAN FRENCH’S RATING FOR MISHA AND THE WOLVES IS A 5 OUT OF 10