The red flags probably should go up during the opening credits to “Life Is Strange,” a new documentary opening on Jan. 24. Anytime a movie opens with a voiceover in which the director asks, “I’m not a filmmaker, why did I make this film,” an audience can be forgiven if it, in turn, asks why it is watching it.
In the final analysis, “Life Is Strange,” a low-key, often charming and sometimes moving look at life in the Jewish communities of Europe before the Shoah, is a bit better than that opening stumble might suggest, but it certainly suffers from the frustrations that often accompany the work of a novice, and in the end the film is frustrating viewing.
Isaac Hertz, the director and co-author (with Alain Jakubowicz, who also co-edited) of the film, has assembled an impressive cast of witnesses to recall their daily lives in the cities and villages of pre-war Europe. He managed to attract Nobel laureates Robert Aumann and Walter Kohn, Shimon Peres, the Israeli children’s book author Uri Orlov and Peter Marcuse, a distinguished academic in his own right and the son of Herbert Marcuse. Although each of these men has a compelling story to tell, some of the best testimony comes from ordinary Jews whose names might otherwise be forgotten by history.
The film is admirably balanced in its demographic choices, offering a range of religious adherences from disciples of the Chofetz Chaim to adamant non-believers, and a mix of city and rural dwellers from across Eastern Europe.
Ostensibly the film’s primary concern is with the experience of children. Very early in the movie’s compact 93-minute running time, the narration morphs from the voice of Hertz, pondering why he has always been drawn to his grandparents’ generation, to that of a child speculating on what life might have been like if he, too, had grown up in Krakow or next door to a famous Litvish yeshiva.
Therein lies one of the principle problems with “Life Is Strange” — its peculiar tone. Zachary Cirino, who does most of the narrating, is fine, but the narration itself is clumsy, a grown-up’s idea of what a kid should sound like, and the tone veers between the dutiful and the fatuous. Do we really need to be told repeatedly that it’s hard for a contemporary child to comprehend a life without television and the Internet?
The film also suffers from a certain shapelessness, wandering between the vagaries of daily life in a seemingly random pattern and the darker currents of European history. Although the interviews are supposed to elicit recollections of a child’s-eye view of events, inevitably it is the adult perspective that dominates, skewing the tone of the film even more. Having an Orthodox rabbi cautioning against the dangers of assimilation while Peter Marcuse expresses his lifelong distaste for ultra-Orthodox Judaism as “a perversion of Jewish values” for its strict gender segregation, hardly reflects the childhood memories of either witness.
Maybe the narrator is right to be baffled by some of the events he has been told about. “I don’t know,” he says at one point in the film, “I’m just a kid.”
“Life Is Strange,” directed by Isaac Hertz, opens Friday, Jan. 24 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.). For information, call (212) 255-2243, or go to www.quadcinema.com.