Shimon Peres in a scene from "Life is Strange." (Handout )
To paint a portrait of European Jewry between the world wars, novice filmmaker Isaac Hertz mined the childhood memories of two dozen interview subjects and matched their recollections to well-chosen (and unidentified) archival footage. His documentary "Life Is Strange" is unfocused yet intermittently effective as an illustrated oral history.
An American who professes an affinity to his grandparents' generation, the director spoke with a seemingly random assortment of people who survived or escaped the Holocaust. Interviewees include Israeli president Shimon Peres, "Island on Bird Street" author Uri Orlev, academics, Nobel laureates and friends of the filmmaker.
Their reminiscences of family cohesiveness in difficult times, and of Sabbath and holiday rituals, have a familiar echo. The film skims past a potentially rich vein exploring the cultural divide between ultra-Orthodox and other Jews.
Perhaps in reference to the four questions of the Passover Seder, Hertz uses the disingenuous narrative device of a child's voiceover queries. As an attempt to structure his material, it's an amateurish miscalculation. With its vague organizing principle, the film fails to achieve an impact greater than the sum of its parts.
But some of those parts are noteworthy. Though the focus is pre-World War II life, it's the wartime accounts, among them firsthand encounters with Mengele in the camps, that are most affecting. Triumphs and joys register too: the logistical challenges of attending Catholic-oriented public schools; the talismanic beauty of a child's Haggadah, still in use 70 years later.
"Life Is Strange." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills; Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.