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The Tattooist of Auschwitz review – proof that the Holocaust cannot be entertainment
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The Tattooist of Auschwitz review – proof that the Holocaust cannot be entertainment

There is that word, that name, sitting there in the title, coming up before each ad break: Auschwitz. There had better be a good reason to invoke it. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a drama that raises the question of whether fiction can ever be an appropriate response to the Holocaust; on this evidence, perhaps not.

In 1942, a young Slovakian Jew named Lali (Jonah Hauer-King) is deported to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland. He is soon given the task of tattooing serial numbers on to the arms of new arrivals – one of them is Gita (Anna Próchniak), with whom Lali falls instantly in love. Thanks to the privileges Lali’s job brings, and the protection given to the couple by the unstable SS officer Stefan Baretzki (Jonas Nay), Lali and Gita are able to pursue their romance and survive. Decades later, in Australia, the widowed Lali (Harvey Keitel) invites rookie writer Heather Morris (Melanie Lynskey) to hear his story, of the Holocaust and of his life afterwards with Gita.

Dramas in which the characters are affected by the Holocaust can be illuminating and instructive – A Small Light last year being just one – but it helps greatly if the killing stays largely off-screen. The inescapable problem with narratives that dare to portray the singular evil of the camps directly, to walk through the gates and look at the hellishness head-on, is that a fictional representation that does not sanitise the horror cannot be made, because nobody could stand to make or watch it. If we are to revive what happened with sets and actors, to experience it rather than complete the academic exercise of producing a documentary, it is impossible not to take refuge in the things that make drama palatable: heroism, coincidence, triumph, humour, suspense. But these are the ingredients of entertainment, and Auschwitz surely cannot entertain us.

These thoughts do not concern The Tattooist of Auschwitz at all. Its first episode ends with Lali and Gita’s eyes filmed in extreme closeup as the meeting of each other’s gaze causes them to make a connection we know will last for ever. Romantic music swells on the soundtrack and, as they temporarily part, they both smile. For half a second, we almost forget where we are.

Efforts are made to portray the extent of the brutality, with early scenes of casual murder giving way to hideous cruelties in later episodes, as the prisoners’ ordeal wears on. The fear, the degradation and the constant hum of death are all there. But they are obstacles navigated by Lali and Gita as classic protagonists of a luxury mainstream drama, exceptional and indestructible. He is unusually sensitive – “I’m sorry,” he says to every prisoner to whom he applies his inked needle, having recognised that he is perpetrating the first of many acts of violence they will suffer – while she is luminously optimistic. We trust that they can outwit Baretzki, the Nazi guard who takes an interest in them, and who is presented more as a confused deviant than as an instrument of organised terror. They will survive, the message seems to be, because they are clever and kind and adorable enough to survive. The best of our humanity will prevail, says a show set in a time and place where it did not.

The counterargument is, of course, that Lali and Gita did do all these things, because they did exist. The book this series adapts is a fact-based novel, stemming from Morris meeting the real Lali, just as she is shown to do here. The television version corrects some errors that led Morris to be criticised, such as which number was imprinted on Gita’s arm – but names have still been changed and events reshaped. We cannot rely on any individual moment to be true. We cannot say that this all happened.

The show tries to lean into its own artifice. Fourth walls are broken. Characters from the past speak to Lali to chide him for unreliable narration. They appear to him in his home, as the drama seeks to analyse the lasting torture of the Holocaust as a fact and a memory: anyone who remembers it or even hears about it is traumatised. But if Morris’s original decision to take Lali’s life and mould it into a story, making creative choices about what to include and how to portray it, was presumptuous, the way the TV show includes her as a character on her own emotional journey – another one where everything will be all right, because the book will be published – is worse. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is well made, well acted, well intentioned, and grotesque.

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Source: theguardian.com