Saturday, April 10, 2010

Hannah Senesh: Blessed is the Match

Considered Israel’s Jeanne D’Arc, she was a true warrior-poet in the most heroic tradition. Though executed in the waning days of World War II for her part in an ill-fated rescue mission, her verse endures as a source of inspiration and national pride for the Israeli people. Taking its name from Hannah Senesh’s most celebrated quatrain, Roberta Grossman’s documentary Blessed is the Match: the Life and Death of Hannah Senesh (trailer here) airs Tuesday on PBS (shortly following Holocaust Remembrance Day tomorrow), as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

Filmed with the support of Senesh’s surviving family, Blessed had access to thousands of photos and personal documents, many of which have never publicly circulated before, revealing her short but intense life. Born to a prosperous family, the teen-aged Senesh still chafed under Hungarian anti-Semitism, eventually expatriating to the British Mandate that would later become the State of Israel. As Hitler pressured his reluctant Hungarian allies to adopt his Final Solution, Senesh was living safely on a kibbutz. However, she willingly enlisted with the British, putting herself directly in harm’s way in what is considered the only military operation of WWII launched with the sole intent of rescuing European Jewry.

When Senesh and her two comrades took off for their Yugoslavian entry point, Hungary was still a sovereign country, where Senesh would have freedom of movement as a citizen. When they landed, Germany had occupied her ostensive ally and installed the SS-like Arrow Cross to do their savage bidding. As a Jew, Senesh suddenly had no rights in Hungary, yet she persisted in her mission. In his final recorded interview, one of her fellow paratroopers relates an incident shortly before her capture when she gave him a scrap of paper that he nearly lost to the sands of time. On that paper, of course, were the lines of her famous poem: “Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame/Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart . . .”

Yet, Grossman’s film is first and foremost about the relationship between Senesh and her mother Catherine, who is voiced by Joan Allen (who also narrated the excellent Rape of Europa, which documented the National Socialists’ systematic plundering of Europe’s artistic heritage.) For months they were simultaneously imprisoned but cruelly forbidden any form of contact. However, their emotional bond remained unbreakable.

In Blessed, Grossman employs just about every technique available to documentarians, including talking head interviews, extensive use of still photography, in-character voice-overs, and even dramatic re-creations. Although there is an understandable impulse to canonize Senesh, Grossman does include recollections of those who knew the soldier-poet, but did not exactly love her (while certainly respecting her courage and sacrifice). We also hear from Senesh’s nephews and the always eloquent historian, Sir Martin Gilbert.

Though short-listed by the Academy, Blessed was disappointingly denied an Oscar nomination for best documentary. It is in fact, far superior to most of the final 2008 nominees (except the eventual winner, Man on Wire). Indeed, Senesh’s story is undeniably compelling and Grossman’s treatment is both informative and surprisingly cinematic. It airs this coming Tuesday (4/13) on most PBS outlets.