By all rights, Ella Blumenthal probably shouldn’t be here. Born the youngest of seven children in Warsaw, Poland in 1921, her entire extended family was rounded up by the Nazis into the Warsaw Ghetto before most of them were sent to Treblinka, where she lost 23 family members—all but her, her father, and her niece were gone. She herself was condemned to the Majdanek concentration camp where she narrowly escaped the gas chambers, followed by stints in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Ultimately, she endured five long years of torture and close calls before being liberated in 1945.
But thankfully, she is still here, and as her family gathered in her home in South Africa to celebrate her 98th birthday (she’s since turned 100!), documentarian Jordy Sank was there to capture Blumenthal as she reminisced about her experiences. I could mention some of the unreal ways in which she was able to cheat death, but it’s much better to hear it in Blumenthal’s own words, who is still sprightly and quick-witted, and a gregarious and insightful storyteller.
While much of the film’s runtime is footage of Blumenthal telling her family her story and answering their questions, Sank spices up the visuals of the longer storytelling passages with animated recreations. The character designs in the animation recall the cartoony simplicity of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis with more true-to-life proportions. The animation itself, courtesy of Greg Bakker, is fairly minimalist and its simplicity feels jarring at first, but as time goes on it blends into the framework of the film until the transitions are more or less seamless.
Blumenthal’s story of survival is a thrilling one, but what’s more notable is her attitude, her pure unflappable positivity even after seeing humanity at its darkest. “I never lost hope,” she says at one point, “never. [Not even] in the darkest times of my life.” We should all be so lucky. | Jason Green
I Am Here will screen at the Tivoli Theatre (6350 Delmar Blvd.) on Monday, November 8th at 7:00pm along with the short “Two Sides of Survival” as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival. The film is not available for virtual screening. Further information about tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the SLIFF 2021 website.