Life & Culture

The Boy in the Woods review: Jewish resilience stars in this Shoah survival story

This adaptation of a Holocaust memoir provides a distinctive take on the meaning of remembrance in the face of catastrophe


The Boy in the Woods

Director: Rebecca Snow

UK release: 27 May 2024 | ★★★★✩

Reviewed by Alun David

In 2019, the Toronto-based film director and writer Rebecca Snow made the documentary film Cheating Hitler: Surviving the Holocaust. The Boy in the Woods is Snow’s remarkable feature-length adaptation of a memoir by one of the participants, Maxwell Smart, an artist and Holocaust survivor, who emigrated to Canada after the Shoah and has created an impressive body of work on the themes of witness and remembrance. Smart is credited along with Snow as a co-writer of the later film.

Smart grew up in the 1930s in what was then eastern Poland, now western Ukraine. Under Nazi occupation in the Second World War, his well-to-do family was pressed into a ghetto, and then in 1942 rounded up for so-called “deportation”. When the opportunity presented itself, Smart’s mother courageously instructed her son to escape and survive. After a brief stay with a peasant family, he was forced to hide in the local woodlands, where he eked out an existence until the area was liberated by the Red Army in 1943.

Snow’s treatment of Smart’s experiences is clearly indebted to other cinematic representations of the Holocaust. For example, the influence of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) is strongly felt, down to the fourth-wall-breaking final reel in which we meet some of the survivors in the present day. An interrogation scene recreates almost shot-for-shot the composition of the terrifying opening section of Quentin Tarrantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Yet in spite of these and other strong precursors, Snow and Smart together provide a distinctive take on the meaning of remembrance and creativity in the face of catastrophe. Max is presented as much more than just a resourceful 12-year-old; he is already a burgeoning artist, endowed with an acute sensitivity towards the power and value of the image. His struggle is not merely for his own physical survival, but also to preserve the memory, or perhaps, rather, the reality of his loved ones, even while he cannot admit to himself that they have perished. Despite some moments of real jeopardy, there is never much doubt that Max will be able to evade capture and catch and skin a rabbit to keep himself going. But when he starts to fear that he will forget what his relatives look like, and scrambles to find some way to draw their likenesses from memory, then the anguish of his situation is palpable.

All of this places a heavy burden on the shoulders of Jett Klyne, the young actor who plays Max. Happily, his performance is rather remarkable. Perhaps there is a slightly soft focus – Smart has spoken about his experiences as reducing him almost to a feral state, but that is not the impression given here. What we do see is a convincing portrayal of a thoroughly decent, sensitive, and thoughtful young person thrown into a situation of extreme peril, and yet preserving a capacity for empathy and solidarity.

Two other performances are particularly noteworthy. David Kohlsmith plays Yanek, an orphaned Jewish boy, whom Max finds in the woods and takes under his wing. Yanek is younger than Max, and conspicuously more vulnerable – as such, he provides a foil to Max’s adaptability. Yet Yanek is in some ways more clear-sighted than his idealistic friend, a contrast that is manifested most clearly in a tragic denouement.

Richard Armitage is also fascinating as Jasko, the peasant farmer who initially provides Max with a hiding place. The part is a little under-written, but Armitage lends it nuance – Jasko can be seen as a mercenary, who only does the right thing when it pays, or when the war has swung in the Soviets’ favour. On the other hand, he shows excruciating fear in the face of the collaborationist authorities, and real courage in standing up to them.

All of this adds weight and depth to an already remarkable story of Jewish resourcefulness and resilience. Some of the filmmaking is breathtaking – the photography of Canadian forests masquerading as eastern European woodland seamlessly zooms in from broad panoramas to close-ups of individual pine-needles, and back out again. This too is part of Snow’s and Smart’s shared perspective on memory – the imperative to hold onto every individual caught up in the tragedy. The Spielberg-esque coda is, certainly, a celebration of Jewish resilience, but it also contains a devastating reminder of how much survival can cost.

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