Roger Ebert Home

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The notion that love could blossom in the most horrifying of places say, a concentration camp during the Holocaust—is a tough pill to swallow, even at the best of times. And yet, Lali Sokolov and Gita Furman, two Slovakian prisoners at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, did indeed meet at the camp, fall in love, and survive the camps to spend a long life together. That kind of improbable love story catapulted Heather Morris' novel on the subject, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, into a bestseller, albeit a controversial one—debates still rage on the veracity of the claims and details of her version of Lali and Gita's story. (The Auschwitz Memorial Museum remarks that the book "cannot be recommended as a valuable position for those who wish to understand the history of the camp.")

But it makes for a more pleasing story, doesn't it? That's what the team behind the Peacock adaptation of the novel counts on throughout its six episodes—a sobering, haunting depiction of the crimes of the Shoah, peppered with just enough hope and romance to feel bittersweet, rather than torturous. For all its period detail and unflinching depiction of the Holocaust's horrors, though, "The Tattooist of Auschwitz" lumbers more than it inspires.  

Much of this is down to the series' insistence on acknowledging its roots as a historical fiction novel, one written by then-neophyte New Zealand author Heather Morris (Melanie Lynskey, sporting an unflattering blonde bob meant to emulate the real woman's hairdo), who found herself in contact with the eighty-something Sokolov (Harvey Keitel, behind prosthetic makeup) and chose to talk to him about his stories for the sake of her first book. Both actors are phenomenal performers, but there's very little on the page to play: Lynskey's role is primarily as sheepish inquisitor, the character's only wrinkles coming from her struggle to process the horrors Lali tells her and her need to set boundaries with him. Older Lali, meanwhile, is literally haunted by the horrors of his time in Auschwitz; Keitel imbues his character with a quiet, passive dignity, but the confines of their talky scenes give him little to do but wince in visceral remembrance.

The real meat of the story comes in its depiction of Lali's story in his youth (now played by "The Little Mermaid" remake's Jonah Hauer-King), as the young man is sent off to Auschwitz within the show's first episode. Despite the hollow promises of a sign above the gate that reads "Work Will Set You Free," or a band of begrudging prisoners playing peppy fanfare for incoming prisoners, it's quickly apparent that this is more than a mere work camp—they're being exterminated, whether quickly due to indiscriminate Nazi bullets or slowly from disease and starvation. Lali can only find safety as one of the camp's tattooists (responsible for marking each prisoner's arm with the number that will become their new identity), a duty he accepts with grim resignation. 

Hope comes, of course, with the arrival of Gita (Anna Próchniak), a beautiful young girl who forms a perverse meet-cute connection with Lali while he presses ink into her flesh. It's love at first sight for these two lovebirds, but the logistics of the camps keep them apart. Still, they find reasons to see each other, often just to keep the other alive—first, as Lali strives to find medication for Gita's typhus, then as Gita tries to find Lali after weeks apart. 

The most interesting wrinkles in "Tattooist"'s otherwise rote spin on the usual concentration camp story come with Lali's curious position in the camp: the guilt he feels over his comparatively privileged position, the growing emotional toll of seeing friends shot, dragged away, or gassed, and the aching longing of his moments without Gita. In classic "Schindler's" fashion, we also have a sociopathic SS officer who plays both unconventional ally and looming threat: Jonas Nay's slack-jawed Stefan Baretzki, whose dead shark eyes and off-kilter nihilism make his scenes with Lali particularly suspenseful.

Like most depictions of the camps, it's bleak, filthy, and dreary, David Katznelson's desaturated cinematography playing up the empty greys and browns of Stevie Herbert's production design. It's a fitting setting for a story as terrifying as this, evoking the technical detail and harrowing immediacy of famed Holocaust works like "Schindler's List" and "Son of Saul." Hans Zimmer and co-composer Kara Talve lacquer the proceedings with ominous strings, lifting only slightly in moments when piano underscores Lali and Gita's rare moments of privacy and intimacy.

It's all effective in a blunt-force kind of way but plays along the conventions of the Holocaust drama without complicating them beyond the near-pornographic bursts of violence we're meant to absorb. The show seems to delight in showing its SS officers shooting crying Jews in the face, forcing Jewish women to perform sexual services for them, and showing doomed prisoners crying out, "I'm free!" in relief shortly before they're hanged. 

No one is accusing "The Tattooist of Auschwitz" of shying away from the agony of its setting. Still, its sense of doom is so overarching, so unrelenting, that it dulls the moments that are meant to allow its characters to escape from their Nazi-imposed hell. Hauer-King spends so much time through the wringer that Lali becomes less a character and more an avatar for survival; the same goes for Gita, who gets little dimension beyond her immediate need for survival and her status as Lali's star-crossed love. (The sole exception is the final episode, in which the post-war couple must weigh a difficult decision regarding Nazi testimony; it's here Próchniak gets to play a note beyond agonized relief.)

From "Shoah" to "Schindler's" to "Life is Beautiful" and everything in between, the Holocaust has been mined for maximum pathos through a variety of lenses and stories. That, unfortunately, makes the comparatively straightforward "Tattooist" suffer by comparison—a self-evident tale of love and bravery that rarely complicates that formula, despite a handsome presentation and a generous donation of Barbra Streisand's voice to the original song that plays over the credits. It's a valuable story worth telling, even (hopefully) amid all the poetic license its source novel and its adaptation take. But as drama, recent works like "Irena's Vow" and the excellent "A Small Light" take far more novel, dynamic paths to those tales of resilience and heroism during the Holocaust.

Whole series screened for review. Premieres on Peacock on May 2nd.

Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Staff Writer for Consequence. He is also a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and Critics Choice Association. You can also find his byline at RogerEbert.com, Vulture, The Companion, FOX Digital, and elsewhere. 

Now playing

The Contestant
Dusk for a Hitman
IF
Slow

Film Credits

The Tattooist of Auschwitz movie poster

The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2024)

Cast

Harvey Keitel as Lale Sokolov

Jonah Hauer-King as Younger Lale Sokolov

Melanie Lynskey as Heather Morris

Jonas Nay as Stefan Baretzki

Anna Próchniak as Gita

Director

Writer

Latest blog posts

Comments

comments powered by Disqus