Inspired by Karen Levine’s bestseller, Inside Hana’s Suitcase follows Fumiko Ishioka, director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center, as she leads school children on a search to uncover the fate of the owner of a mysterious suitcase belonging to a young victim of the Holocaust. The most prominent clues are the words painted in white on the front of the suitcase, “Hana Brady, May 16, 1931” and “Waisenkind,” the latter of which is German for orphan. From the opening we can see what Ishioka is doing: using the pretext of an adventure to gradually familiarize children with one of the great self-perpetrated atrocities of mankind. And how you feel about that aim may have quite a bit to do with how you feel about the movie.
To be fair, Ishioka is taking on an incredibly sensitive and difficult task (explaining prolonged mass murder to grade schoolers), but something about the mostly staged footage of Ishioka and her students—juxtaposed with interviews with other students in the Czech Republic and Canada—uncovering the inevitably wrenching story of Hana and her brother George is creepy and in questionable taste. The students spout age-appropriate yet asinine observations on Hana and George’s plight, and it’s clear that we’re meant to be moved while simultaneously understanding that these kids are just about the cutest things in the world. A film relating a story of the Holocaust is destined to provoke a number of adjectives, but “cloying” shouldn’t be one of them. (See also, Beautiful, Life Is.)
Making matters worse is the appearance of George, now living in Canada and clearly quite affected by the reemergence of his sister’s suitcase. He’s eloquently matter of fact and hounded by survivor’s guilt, and his interviews might’ve made for a good movie if director Larry Weinstein had allowed them to speak for themselves. But he continually cuts to blunt animated reenactments and interviews with those damn moppets. In other words, Inside Hana’s Suitcase is a film about the Holocaust that marginalizes the one person in the movie who could tell us about the Holocaust.