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Steal a Pencil for Me
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by brianorndorf

"Lifts the spirit and breaks the heart"
4 stars

If it appeared that stories of the Holocaust couldn’t find new dramatic pull, “Steal a Pencil for Me” comes out of nowhere to remind us that there are still corners of this historical event that remain untouched. A modest undertaking of romantic struggle, “Pencil” is a sublime recollection of indefatigable affection and dedication in the face of enormous misery.

During World War II, Holland was enduring the destructive force of Nazi rule. Jaap Polak was an accountant suffering in a loveless marriage, spying a beautiful young woman named Ina one magical night at a party. When the Nazis start the clear Amsterdam of Jews, Jaap and Ina find themselves at the same prison camp, where they strike up a dangerous secretive relationship. Over the course of the war, Jaap and Ina fight to keep their affection alive, using the power of love letters to sustain their hopes during the threat of extinction, focusing on the slim possibility of marriage to mentally survive the horror of the Nazi regime.

“Pencil” keeps joy in its back pocket. Sure, this Holocaust account contains taxing sequences of suffering and recollections of loss powerful enough to induce tears, but director Michele Ohayon (“Cowboy del Amor”) knows it wouldn’t be doing justice to this astonishing tale by clinging so willingly to tragedy.

Jaap and Ina’s extraordinary tale actually begins in the present, with the couple celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. It’s a proud moment for Japp, who wants to sing it to the world. A frail-looking senior with boundless energy and a predilection for historical monologue, Jaap is mindful of his unique perspective and is eager to share his unbelievable story.

“Pencil” soon travels back to WWII and outlines the extraordinary courtship of Ina and Jaap, as the couple arrives at their first camp assignment unsure how to satisfy their attraction, while remaining profoundly concerned about the war-torn future. Using period footage and voiceover readings of the letters, “Pencil” alternates between the bottomless terror of the Nazi occupation and the tunnel vision of attraction, where Jaap and Ina found great solace to keep the relentless horror of the outside world at bay.

However, with Jaap unable to proceed with a divorce and the war reaching a fever pitch of devastation, it’s remarkable how close the couple remained together. In something out of a twisted fairy tale, Jaap and Ina were both sent to the next, considerably more bleak, stage of imprisonment, where they had to endure starvation and doubt, using the gift of love as a means to remain whole. It’s devastating to see Jaap and Ina recall this era, both racked with guilt over the excruciating choices they made to survive. Ohayon is smart enough to refrain from pushing emotional buttons, allowing the singular recollection of the couple (with some supplemental effort from relatives) be just enough to paint a portrait of wilting psychological heaven in the presence of literal hell.

It's safe to say that “Pencil” contains a happy ending, but a surprise resolution is not what this documentary is concerned with. As much as Jaap believes in the power of love, he desires to use his extraordinary situation as an educational tool for the masses; a bold way to keep the Holocaust fresh in the minds of the masses. In recalling this stunning story of perseverance, I can say with assurance that Jaap’s life mission will be preserved forever in the hearts of anyone who comes into contact with this wonderful documentary.

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originally posted: 10/12/07 15:22:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2007 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/16/07 Jim Patrick Love this film, it is a must see 5 stars
3/23/07 Glenn W Powerful documentary on 2 people who fell in love in the camps 5 stars
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  DVD: 25-Mar-2008



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