The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

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The Tattooist of Auschwitz, idea of love in the most dreadful of places (such as a death camp during the Holocaust) is hard to believe, even at the best of times. However, Lali Sokolov and Gita Furman — two Slovakian prisoners in Auschwitz II-Birkenau — did meet at the camp and fall in love, surviving together for many years afterwards.

This kind of unlikely love story helped turn Heather Morris’s novel about them, The Tattooist of Auschwitz , into a bestseller; though controversial — debates still rage over how much of Lali and Gita’s story is true according to her telling.  (“This book by @HeatherMorrisAN cannot be recommended as a valuable position for anyone who wants to learn about or understand the history of Auschwitz,” tweeted the Auschwitz Memorial Museum.)

Desire certainly comes with Gita (Anna Próchniak), a lovely girl who shares an odd meet-cute with Lali as he tattoos her flesh. These two lovebirds fall in love at first sight, but the camps’ logistics create barriers. Still, they find excuses to see each other — often just to keep one another alive. First it’s Lali hunting down medication for Gita’s typhus, then it’s Gita searching for Lali after weeks apart.

The most intriguing wrinkles of “Tattooist”’s otherwise standard concentration camp tale come with Lali’s strange place in the camp: the guilt over his relatively cushy gig, the increasing emotional toll of watching friends shot or dragged away or gassed and the bone-aching ache of his moments without Gita. There’s also — in classic “Schindler’s” fashion — a sociopathic SS officer who serves both as an unconventional ally and a looming threat: Jonas Nay’s slack-jawed Stefan Baretzki, whose dead shark eyes and off-kilter nihilism make his scenes with Lali particularly tense.

Like all depictions of these places, it is bleak and filthy and dreary; David Katznelson’s desaturated cinematography plays up Stevie Herbert’s production design empty greys and browns. It could not be more appropriate for a story this terrifying, calling to mind the technical detail and harrowing immediacy of Holocaust works like “Schindler’s List” or “Son of Saul.” Hans Zimmer and co-composer Kara Talve slather ominous strings onto everything, only lifting slightly whenever piano underscores Lali and Gita’s rare moments of privacy and intimacy.

All this is effective enough but plays within the conventions of Holocaust drama rather than complicating them beyond what we’re supposed to take away from near-pornographic bursts of violence. The show seems to revel in showing SS officers shooting crying Jews in the face, forcing Jewish women to perform sexual services for them and having doomed prisoners cry out “I’m free!” with relief moments before they’re hanged. 

No one can accuse “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” of shying away from the agony of its setting. But when your sense of doom is so all-encompassing, so constant, that it blunts the parts that are meant to represent your characters’ respite from their Nazi-imposed hell then something has gone wrong.

Hauer-King is put through the wringer so many times that Lali becomes less a person than a survival avatar; the same goes for Gita, who gets little dimension beyond her immediate need to stay alive and her status as Lali’s star-crossed love. (The sole exception is the final episode — after the war — where the couple is forced to make a tough call about Nazi testimony; it’s there Próchniak gets to play something beyond agonized relief.)

Considering the fact that it has been approached from “Shoah” to “Schindler’s List” to “Life is Beautiful” and innumerable other ways, it can be said without any doubt that the Holocaust is one of the most pathos-evoking events in history. This makes “Tattooist” pale in comparison — a clear love-and-courage story which doesn’t do much with that paradigm despite being well-produced and boasting a Barbra Streisand-sung original song over the credits.

It’s still an important story to tell, even (hopefully) where all these poetic license-taking adaptations and their source novel are concerned. However, as a drama or work of art, recent pieces such as “Irena’s Vow” or the wonderful “A Small Light” take far more interesting narrative approaches toward telling stories of resilience and heroism during this time period.

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