The Tattooist of Auschwitz

A harrowing real-life dramatisation of love in torment is confrontingly brought to the screen.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably be watching some of The Tattooist of Auschwitz through your fingers.

It’s clear from the premise and the trailer this six part series will be confronting. With Auschwitz in the title how could it be anything other?

But it will seek to show how love grows in the most darkest of corners.

Based on a true-life book of the same name, it is set in Melbourne 2003 and in the Nazi Auschwitz camp of 1942.

Remembering his story is the elderly Lali (Harvey Keitel), sharing his dark secrets with an aspiring writer Heather (Melanie Lynskey).

“This is a love story,” he reveals before later adding, “I don’t have much time.”

Through flashback he recalls being taken as a Slovakian Jew to the concentration camps where all humanity was left at the gates. Thousands of prisoners are huddled in cold, stark barracks with little clean water and light. Such conditions leave prisoners riddled with disease, but the slightest sign of imperfection is reason enough to send them to the gas chambers -or even shoot them at point blank range.

In order to survive Young Lali (Jonah Hauer-King) agrees to duties tattooing his peers upon arrival, which leads to SS Guard Baretzki (Jonas Nay) giving him his own room, as well as establishing a closer -if dangerously erratic- relationship.

“You’re working for the SS now. You will need protection, trust me.” -Baritzky.

“I was 26 and I wanted to live.. I did a deal with the devil” – Lali

When Lali first encounters new prisoner Gita (Anna Próchniak) there is an instant attraction -but how do you fall in love when you’re forbidden from speaking? She is coy in sharing her story, and at first Lali only knows her as Prisoner 4562.

But with great risk there are stolen moments and, more importantly, a reason to live. Set literally against the backdrop of burning chimney smoke, this story is one of endurance and incredible hope.

For senior Lali, recounting his story to Heather, there remain demons and ghosts. Remembering the past comes with great pain and tears, but she is a patient and empathetic listener -even if Lali learns she is Church of England.

But the two form a trusted bond for Lali to share his story.

As a viewer there is great curiosity as to how Lali survived a hell on earth -indeed he is now living comfortably in a well-appointed apartment with some fairly trendy art. How did he come to be in Melbourne all these years later?

Harvey Keitel is the anchor for this story by writer Jacquelin Perske, bringing dignity and presence to the senior Lali. His scenes with Melanie Lynskey (whilst clearly not filmed in Melbourne) draw upon stillness and resolve, interjected with guilt and Holocaust ghosts.

As the Young Lali (Jonah Hauer-King) does all the heavy lifting, with a face deeply expressive to the pain and passion of his circumstance. Anna Próchniak is tender and playful as Gita while Jonas Nay delivers in a most-unforgiving role.

I’m not entirely clear on how Lali is recounting scenes to Heather where he was not present, and an obvious height difference between Hauer-King and Keitel requires suspension of disbelief.

The scenic recreations, shot in Slovakia, are immensely reproduced, and the series is scored by Hans Zimmer (with a song by Barbra Streisand). Director Tali Shalom-Ezer also finds a simple, yet indelible way to put faces to those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, albeit dwarfed by the scale.

The series is necessarily confronting, harrowing and violent. Many will find it too traumatic to watch.

Yet while many WWII screen stories have ventured into the darkest torment of Nazi camps, I can only think of Martin Sherman’s 1979 play Bent that managed to find love beyond their walls.

To have one with an Australian link is a rare thing.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz screens Thursday May 2 on Stan.

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