When The Imposter premiered at Sundance back in January 2012, it set a new benchmark for narrative documentaries, especially those with a mysterious or investigative angle. The story’s brazen absurdity did much of the work fordirector Bart Layton, but he packaged it into a narrative that remains taut, artfuland painfully suspenseful. So, how does Misha and the Wolves compare to this seminal documentary?
Well, it’s a very curious story. The ‘Misha’ in the title refers to Misha Defonseca, a US-based Belgian writer who published Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, which recounted how she, as a seven-year-old Jewish girl, survived the Holocaust after searching for her parents across Belgium, Germany and Poland. At some point during this vast journey, Misha was adopted by a roving pack of wolves that provided ample leftovers for the diminutive child, who managed to fatally stab a German soldier ‘twice her size’.
Sounds far-fetched, right? That’s because it was utter fiction, completely made up. But who’d dare question a supposed Holocaust survivor? Especially one who made teary-eyed appearances on French TV, unloading her manipulative stories on reverent, wide-eyed presenters. Alas, Misha Defonseca is one of those rare narcissists capable of psychopathic levels of lying. She lied not only about her Holocaust experience but even her name and ethnicity. She was born Monique De Wael, a Roman Catholic who experienced WWII in the relative safety of Etterbeek, Belgium. No wolves, no journeys and not even a shred of Jewish heritage.
This elaborate, multi-million dollar fraud was uncovered by a team of sleuths led by Jane Daniel, the independent publisher who ‘discovered’ Defonseca at a Massachusetts synagogue. Daniel launched the investigation after Defonseca sued her over a royalty dispute, which netted the fraudster an incredible $22.5 million.
In relaying the facts and characters of this case, director Sam Hobkinson shows a firm grasp of the documentary format, using a slick balance of interviews and ambient sequences. However, Misha and the Wolves loses intrigue when the lies are exposed. After this dramatic peak, Hobkinson’s narrative struggles to regroup and provide insight on what compelled Defonseca to lie, who has nothing but crocodile tears.
There is no emotional portraiture here like that of Grizzly Man, but that’s because Herzog’s film is about a troubled man who was forthcoming about his problems, not a scheming liar. Indeed, when Defonseca was backed into a corner, she said: “It’s not the true reality, but it is my reality. There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world.” No amount of documentary tact could gain insight from a person this manipulatively dishonest.