Under ordinary circumstances, the love affair documented in Steal A Pencil For Me would still be suffused with emotion, brimming with marital and extramarital intrigue, incredible coincidence, and a passion that transcends obstacles great and small. But the story of Jack Polak and Ina Soep turns out to be more extraordinary than it sounds, since their 60-year romance blossomed and survived in the Nazi camps of Westerbork in Holland and finally Bergen-Belsen, where fate or dumb fortune kept them alive and together against the odds. Based on Polak and Soep's book of the same title, Steal A Pencil likely works better in written form, partly because their love letters are at the heart of the affair, and partly because director Michèle Ohayon (Cowboy Del Amor) does the bare minimum in bringing life to the text. The film can't help but be moving, but not as cinema.
By the time the Germans invaded their native Holland, Jack and his wife Manja had more or less agreed to weather their contentious marriage a little longer, and divorce after the war was over. Meanwhile, Jack had locked eyes with Ina at a party and resolved that she was the woman for him. The daughter of a wealthy diamond merchant, Ina had a luxurious life that the poorer Jack was denied, but it didn't keep either out of the concentration camp. Remarkably, Jack, Manja, and Ina all shared the same barracks at Westerbork, where Jack and Ina would steal away for romantic walks in the evenings before curfew. When Manja decreed she'd no longer tolerate it, the two communicated in love letters, and their correspondence continued later under the far harsher environs of Bergen-Belsen. All three barely escaped extermination on numerous occasions; nine out of the 10 people deported from Westerbork were sent instead to certain death at Auschwitz.
Dutch actors Jeroen Krabbé and Ellen Ten Damme read passages from the letters in a tone that could only be described as high cheese, especially Krabbé's contributions, which are relayed in an excited whisper that overplays the illicit romance. Better are the modern-day scenes that find Jack and Ina still alive and healthy, active in spreading Holocaust awareness to today's youth while still clearly delighting in each other's company. Ohayon glosses over some of the story's thornier aspects, never giving Manja a presence outside of being a stubborn obstacle, or exploring in much detail Ina's relationship with another man whom she loved equally. There's incredible feeling behind Steal A Pencil For Me—enough to sustain two lives throughout unimaginable hardship—but the film doesn't bring much of it to the surface.