Hannah Senesh—the ardent young socialist-Zionist who emigrated from Budapest to Palestine and was tortured and killed by the Nazis for parachuting into Hungary to stimulate Jewish resistance—has become such a sainted Joan of Arc to Israelis that it’s a relief to watch her scaled down into a flawed woman (of enormous bravery) here. Based on a memoir by Senesh’s mother, Roberta Grossman’s film is an ungainly hybrid of straight-up documentary and ingenuous reenactment. Grossman smartly shifts the focus from the parachutist’s derring-do to the bizarre sequence of events by which, held in the same prison, Senesh and her mother managed to communicate with one another and buoy the spirits of other prisoners. Senesh had a soulful side—she wrote the poem, “Eli, Eli,” that became the famous Holocaust song—but, like many people of outstanding public courage, she was less adept at private life. To her regret, she never had a lover, and one of her surviving fellow partisans frankly admits that he found more in her to admire than to like. Senesh’s fortitude, and her intransigent refusal to beg for her life at the end, raise complicated questions about heroism, as Anglo-Jewish historian Martin Gilbert underscores when he asks what counts as failure in the context of the Holocaust.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 28, 2009