Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Hannah Senesh: Blessed is the Match

According to novelist and Israeli Defense Force veteran Alan Kaufman, IDF soldiers are sometimes referred to as “matches,” in an allusion to Hannah Senesh’s beloved poem. Though executed in the waning days of World War II for her part in an ill-fated attempt to rescue Hungarian Jewry, her poetry endures as a source of inspiration and national pride for the people of Israel. Taking its name from that Senesh quatrain, Roberta Grossman’s Academy Award shortlisted documentary Blessed is the Match: the Life and Death of Hannah Senesh (trailer here) opens today in New York.

Filmed with the support of Senesh’s surviving family, Blessed had access to thousands of photos and personal documents, many never publicly aired 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 Palestine. As Hitler pressured his reluctant Hungarian allies to adopt his Final Solution, Senesh was living safely on a kibbutz. However, the young poet, barely into her twenties, willingly enlisted with the British for a risky mission back to her homeland, putting herself directly in harm’s way.

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 Hungarian and installed the SS-like Arrow Cross to do their 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 in which she gave him a scrap of paper, which 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 . . . “

For Grossman though, the heart of the film is the relationship between Senesh and her mother Catherine, whose memoirs are 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 imprisoned simultaneously but separately, allowed only furtive glances of each other. However, their emotional bond remained unbreakable.

In Blessed, Grossman uses 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. While 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 (but certainly respect her courage and sacrifice). We also hear from Senesh’s nephews, the always eloquent historian, Sir Martin Gilbert, and even Shimon Peres, who briefly knew Senesh during her kibbutz days.

Though short-listed, Blessed was disappointingly denied an Academy nomination for best documentary. It is in fact, far superior to most of the final nominees, except the outstanding Man on Wire. Senesh’s story is clearly compelling, and Grossman’s absorbing treatment is both informative and quite cinematic. It opens today in New York at the Sunshine Theater.