In “Nina & Irena” filmmaker Daniel Lombroso interviews his grandmother, who survived the Holocaust

Last Updated: September 22, 2023By Tags: ,

The filmmaker Daniel Lombroso continues to amaze me. I learned of his work early in the pandemic, encountering his documentary “White Noise” at the first (but not last) virtual AFI DOCS fest in 2020. That searing film—which was on my best-of-the-year list—introduced us to true believers in the cause of white supremacy, including a young Canadian woman who is among the most intriguing documentary subjects in years in addition to being a massive hypocrite. I also greatly enjoyed his “American Scar” from 2021, about how the so-called border wall threatens to upset the path of migratory animals, “Greywater,” about fish poaching in the waters around Staten Island, and “Prince of Luna Park,” about a dysfunctional family running an amusement park.  

All of those earlier films had Lombroso, who is now a staff filmmaker at the New Yorker, looking outwards. For his new and most personal film to date, “Nina & Irena,” the documentarian with the soul of a true investigator turns the camera around at his own family. And what history he has to share.

The Nina of the title is Lombroso’s grandmother, Nina Gottlieb, a Polish Jew who survived Hitler’s madness while her sister, Irena, did not. Now in her sunset years, Gottlieb patiently sits for her grandson’s burning inquiries, including her thoughts on how two sisters could have met such different fates. Even when all reason might dictate that Gottlieb would have long ago given up any hope for our species, somehow she exhibits a nearly inhuman perseverance—and dare I say even optimism.  

Lombroso is not only behind the camera this time but steps in front of it in conversations with his grandmother. Yet unlike such well-known figures as Nicholas Broomfield and Michael Moore, Lombroso isn’t out to make himself part of the show; his coming before the lens is a requirement of his film, not at all a product of vanity. On camera, the director appears shy yet curious, as if knowing the only way to keep his grandmother’s story alive is to become a part of it.  

But first, to listen, as we must do before sharing what we learn in those critical moments in between the silences.

“Nina & Irena” will have a limited theatrical run starting today (if there is any justice in the world, an Oscar nomination for a short documentary is a must) at New York’s Firehouse Cinema.  

Lombroso and Nina Gottlieb herself will be present for certain screenings for Q&A; more information can be found on the theater’s website here

It’s another extraordinary effort from this most talented of filmmakers.  

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