It goes without saying that Holocaust movies make for difficult viewings. It also goes without saying that the number of films dealing with the Holocaust are too many to count. Ever since the breadth of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews were revealed, filmmakers from all over the globe have tackled the Holocaust from numerous points of view and have mined countless inspirational and sobering true stories from both inside and outside of the concentration camps.
For a variety of different reasons, some are quick to dismiss Holocaust movies or simply avoid them altogether. Personally, I’m glad filmmakers are still reminding us of horrors we should never forget while also heralding the true stories of heroism and sacrifice from so many who suffered, endured or resisted such abominable evil. As long as there are stories to tell, I hope filmmakers will continue to tell them.
The new Slovak drama “The Auschwitz Report” shares those same beliefs even beginning with philosopher George Santayana’s timeless words “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The film comes from director Peter Bebjak and sets its focus on a daring escape of two prisoners Alfred Wetzler (Noel Czuczor) and Rudolph Vrba (Peter Ondrejička). During the war, news of the concentration camps was slow getting to the allies and the Nazi’s went to great links to hide their savagery. Wetzler and Vrba were determined to get news of the atrocities to the outside world – to share the truth hidden behind the veil of Nazi deception and propaganda.
The film’s three-act structure begins on April 7, 1944. The opening scene shows hundreds of Jews – cold, pale, their heads shaved and in dirty striped prison rags – being herded around two prisoners seated and tied to their chairs. “This is what happens to those who try to escape from my camp,” the Nazi officer yells. I’m sure you can guess the outcome. This is Auschwitz. A place of inexplicable barbarity; where the sound of a train whistle sends chills and death is as common as air.
Throughout the first act, Wetzler and Vrba spend most of the time hiding in a small hole underneath a stack of lumber. Bebjak instead focuses on the men from his barracks who stood their ground and refused to reveal the pair’s whereabouts despite tremendous physical and psychological torture at the hands of a depraved Nazi commander (played by Florian Panzner). Bebjak doesn’t sugarcoat the horror, highlighting some of the camp’s brutal rituals while throwing in a handful of effectively uncomfortable flashbacks which show the camp’s processing of new prisoners. It’s harrowing stuff.
The second act moves to the actual escape – more specifically Wetzler and Vrba’s struggles to survive in the cold and rugged woods as they make their way to the border. Along their arduous journey the duo finds help from sympathetic strangers – a young woman in the forest, a kindly couple in a small village, a soldier with connections to the Red Cross. The third act centers on their efforts to convince allied representatives of what was really happening in Auschwitz. In reality, the VRBA-Wetzler Report was one of the first in-person accounts to shed light on the death camps. And their report is directly credited with saving around 120,000 Hungarian Jews set to be sent to Auschwitz.
“The Auschwitz Report” does feel very much like a Holocaust movie (for obvious reasons), but it sets itself apart with some shrewd and thoughtful filmmaking choices. Its three-pronged story leaves a lot of details on the side, but it does a good job centralizing the story around particular acts of bravery. There is a strange collage of audio clips playing over the end credits that makes some questionable equivalents, but for the most part Bebjak message is one of courage and determination. It’s also a searing historical piece that stresses the enormous effort it took to get the world to see what was happening at the hands of the Nazis.
Bebjak also uses an array of clever and powerful visual flourishes to convey his points. There’s a striking mixture of handheld camera an wide-angle shots that are particularly potent during the scenes within Auschwitz. We also see Bebjak playing with perspective, using intense closeups, and shooting from unconventional and often disorienting angles. He and DP Martin Žiaran put a lot of effort into the film’s visual language and often rely on the camera as much as the cast to convey the intensity of emotions.
Co-written by Bebjak, Jozef Pastéka and Tomás Bombík, “The Auschwitz Report” pulls yet another remarkable story from the inhumanity that was the Holocaust. You can’t help but wonder about some of the details that are left behind as the story progresses. But at the same time, the film keeps you glued to its story – one that highlights the very best of human nature and the absolute worst. It makes for a sobering call to remembrance and a stern warning against repeating the sins of our often ugly past. “The Auschwitz Report” is available now in select theaters and on VOD.