Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

- courtesy of Strand Releasing

Sensitively reveals how a girl experiences terror, life-or-death chances, and hateful human interactions, with amazing pluck and determination

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Steven Oritt
Written by Steven Oritt and David Himmelstein
Produced by Steven Oritt and Justyna Pawlak, in association with USC Shoah Foundation
USA. 111 min. Not Rated
In English, and Polish, German and Ukrainian with English subtitles
With: Zuzanna Surowy, Eryk Lubos, Michalina Olszanska, Pawel Krolikowski, and Konrad Cichon
Strand Releasing
U.S. theatrical premiere release begins July 13 in NYC; July 22 in L.A. and San Francisco, CA; July 29 in Miami, FL; August 5 in Bloomfield, MI; August 12 in Cincinnati, OH; and continues nationally.

Context is usefully key in this absorbing, realistically touching version of Sara Góralnik Shapiro’s difficult testimony, 60+ years later, of how she as a girl survived the Holocaust. The introductory background and map emphasize that the people in the towns and villages of eastern Poland and western Ukraine in 1942 were dangerously caught between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Russia, that echoes down to the region’s current war.

First time fiction director Steven Oritt carefully illustrates Jean Renoir’s rueful dictum from The Rules of the Game (1939): “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.” There have been other portrayals of Jews who hid their identity, most notably Agnieszka Holland’s Europa, Europa (1990), but here the risks to everyone are ever present.

Sara was a pre-teen when the Nazis pushed the Russians from her mixed population border hometown of Korets, restricted Jews to starvation, then forced them to work in the town’s small, bare ghetto. The film begins when her parents have heard a rumor of the ghetto’s imminent liquidation and insist that Sara (a supremely confident debut by Zuzanna Surowy) and her older brother Moishe (Konrad Cichon) escape to cross the Korchyk River and reach a Ukrainian woman they had arranged in advance to hide them. Running and ducking past Nazis searching the woods, she bolsters her brother to stay focused on life over death. As emotional as was leaving her family and the close-call chase, at the river, Sara is terrified because she can’t swim. Her brother drags her under the deep water to the opposite bank and saves her.

The portrait of Nazi occupation during the Holocaust gets more complex as their orders are overlaid onto a tradition-bound, antisemitic peasant culture. (The film utilized a historical anthropologist consultant.) When the siblings manage to get to the designated farm, the woman who had been paid in advance, from a distance warns them to leave because she would get killed for hiding Jews. Moishe still wants to chance hiding in that barn, but Sara presciently walks away. And keeps walking, scavenging berries in the forest.

By the time Sara spots a couple of farmers harvesting a field, desperation makes her cautious when she asks for work. Their first suspicious question – what will be a constant query to deflect over the next three years – “Are you a Jew?” She quickly adopts the name of a gentile classmate “Manya Romanchuk” and slyly elaborates about running away from a cruel stepmother. (At a time when evil is really so close at hand, fairy tale threats can become real.)

The leering, older farmer Ivan (Pawel Krolikowski) considers that his brother has small boys and needs a maid to help his younger wife. The grudging couple are even more suspicious of her. But ruggedly charismatic Pavlo (Eryk Lubos, seen internationally in Wojciech Smarzowski’s 2016 Hatred) and bitter Nadya (Michalina Olszanska, also in Agnieszka Holland’s 2019 Mr Jones and the Netflix series 1983) are willing to provide a blanket in the barn and a share of their meals in exchange for long days of hard work.

Caught amidst a cold, unhappy marriage, she has to keep each of their secrets, too. Her effort to show initiative is not appreciated as they suffer from first the Nazis, then nationalist partisans (including one flamboyant Jew) violently demanding increasing quotas of their livestock and produce. She equally shares in the farm’s physical, seasonal difficulties.

The pressures to not inadvertently reveal her truth are daily, from expected prayers and weekly church worship, to stuffing cloth in her mouth to stop crying and talking in her sleep. She has to participate in a jolly antisemitic New Years Day ritual and control her responses to the evidence of the Holocaust continuing all around them. When a wagon ride into town passes a local “genocide by bullets” accomplished by the Einsatzgruppen, her too long look at a woman victim is judged too sympathetic by her employer. Another time she is spooked when they pass under lynched bodies warning not to hide Jews. She can only give advice to another Jewish girl on the run – and tries not to react on learning her fate. Documentaries and docu-dramas, most recently Babi Yar. Context, have shown Ukrainians passive/active complicity with Nazis, but here it is unusually intimate and casual, as we feel Sara’s hurt. All this when she is just entering her teens.

There is a bit of confusion. The filmmaker is proud that he was able to cast German actors for German-speaking roles, Russians for Russian-speaking roles, and Ukrainians for some of the Ukrainian-speaking roles in the early scenes. But the film was shot in Poland, and used Polish actors for the main roles – then has them speak English. Though it wasn’t clear from Sara’s testimony, I just surmise she spoke Ukrainian with the family. Additional sympathy for the locals is awkwardly inserted when the priest is allied with the partisans.

The Polish crew also helps to make the film look and sound lovely, despite the grim subject, including cinematographer Marian Prokop (who has several Polish award nominations for his work) and editor Agnieszka Glinska (known for the documentary Communion in 2018, later Lamb in 2021). The mostly simple stringed score by Lukasz Targosz avoids clichés.

In her testimony, Sara could mostly say that the situations she was in and witnessed were “bad”, and her criteria for living in better ones was “at least they weren’t trying to kill me”. It was after her elder son Mickey Shapiro traveled to Ukraine and re-traced her steps that he agreed to the film, and is an executive producer, in addition to his philanthropic activities for Holocaust education and remembrance in her memory (and of his father Asa Shapiro who she met at only 15 years old when they were both among the few Jews to make it back to Korets).

My Name Is Sara sensitively fills out her experiences at a very young age of terror, life-or-death chances, within the context of hateful human interactions, and, especially, her amazing pluck and determination to survive.
In Memoriam to Sara Góralnik Shapiro 1930 – 2018


Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

My reviews have appeared on: Film-Forward; FF2 Media; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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