“We who survived the Camps are not true witnesses,” Primo Levi once wrote. “We, the survivors, are not only a tiny but also an anomalous minority. We are those who, through prevarication, skill or luck, never touched bottom. Those who have, and who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless.” Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant, who, like Levi, went through the horrors of Auschwitz, echoes this sentiment throughout Nana, a stirring, if at times clunkily executed, documentary about her life. For Maryla, the act of relating her own story of the Holocaust was not about unburdening herself of the experience, nor was it a way of offering an explanation for the genocide, which she maintained was inexplicable. Rather, Maryla told and retold her story in order to remember those who were killed. As she says in one archival clip, for her not to carry on their stories would be a betrayal.
Directed by Maryla’s granddaughter, Serena Dykman, Nana draws on over 100 hours of videotaped interviews with the Polish-born survivor, which she gave to educators and Holocaust museums in the later years of her life. In these clips, Maryla is solemn yet witty and good-humored, able to relate even the most horrific events with wit and passion. When one interviewer inquires about her first impression of Josef Mengele, for whom Maryla was briefly forced to serve as personal secretary, she remembers, with a dreamy look on her face, that she thought he was quite handsome, after which she quickly adds that she considers him the greatest monster of the 20th century.
It’s one of the tragedies of being a Holocaust survivor that every memory, no matter how seemingly mundane, is only a reminder of the horror of this period in time. Living through this trauma saddled Maryla with an extreme form of survivor’s guilt that prevented her from ever allowing herself to feel truly content. And in one of the documentary’s most poignant moments, the woman reveals that the saddest day of her life was when she was liberated by a group of Soviet soldiers who made anti-Semitic remarks about her and her fellow survivors: After struggling so hard to survive, she felt as if she was returning to a world that would have preferred to see her dead.
Maryla is such a strong presence that Dykman could have simply allowed the footage of the survivor to speak for itself, but instead the filmmaker attempts to weave her own story and that of her mother, Alice Michalowski, into Nana. Dykman not only peppers the documentary with contemporary interviews with some of the people who knew and worked with Maryla on education projects, but also clips of herself and Alice retracing Maryla’s journey from Bedzin to Auschwitz, sometimes reading excerpts from Maryla’s autobiography in direct address to the camera. Dykman is attempting in these sections to explore the legacy of the Holocaust, but her approach only flattens Maryla’s personal story, with all of its fortuitous twists and surprising revelations, into a bunch of hazy generalities about tolerance and the value of remembrance.
For some reason, Dykman seems to think we can’t grasp the full profundity of her grandmother’s life without hearing the director opine on the significance of the documentary. Dykman’s attempts to make herself the center of focus come off as tacky and self-important, never more so than in a moment late in the film when the camera pans from a clip of Maryla playing on television, in which she talks about fighting injustice while admitting that she doesn’t know how, to Dykman watching in the editing bay with a knowing expression on her face. The implication is breathtaking in its pomposity: Maryla may not have understood how to combat hatred, but Dykman has it all figured out.