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To find a novel approach to the Holocaust is definitely a challenge, and yet director Peter Bebjak has told an unfamiliar but revealing story in The Auschwitz Report, Slovakia’s submission for best international film of 2020. Samuel Goldwyn Films will release the movie in the U.S., and although it can’t be described as an entertaining watch, it does retrieve a part of history worth honoring.
Viewers today may not realize that one of the things preventing global outrage over the Nazis’ genocidal program was that the extent of the atrocities was not widely known while the war was raging. It could be argued — and it could well be true — that pervasive anti-Semitism throughout the world would have prevented any other actions being taken to halt the slaughter. But it is also true that Germany did make an effort to conceal the horrific implementation of the Final Solution. Red Cross representatives visited some concentration camps, where the Nazis endeavored to hide what was really happening.
That is why two prisoners at Auschwitz set out to escape, not simply to save their own lives but to provide firsthand reports on what they had seen. The Vrba-Wetzler Report, compiled by Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba, two Slovakian Jews who escaped from Auschwitz in 1944, was one of the first inside reports on the mass slaughter, and it reportedly kept the Hungarian government from transporting more than 100,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz during the final months of the war.
Like the Oscar-winning Son of Saul and some other graphic Holocaust movies, The Auschwitz Report can be difficult to watch. But there is no question that it is an extremely well-crafted piece of work. The cinematography is about as close to black and white as you can get with a color palette, full of icy grays, drab browns and whites, and the director immerses audiences in the grim atmosphere. Much of the movie shows the two protagonists (Noel Czuczor and Peter Ondrejicka) in hiding inside wooden crates, waiting for the moment to make their escape.
Their seclusion is intercut with the commanders of the camp interrogating and tormenting the other prisoners to determine the whereabouts of the two missing Jews. We see enough of the rituals of the camp and the brutality of the commanders to understand the nightmare, but the film does not dwell on this; it means to honor the determination of these two prisoners who persisted in order to tell their story.
Once they finally escape and make their way into the surrounding forest, the film loses some of its claustrophobia, but it remains appropriately dark-tinged. The final section concerns their report to a British representative of the Red Cross (played by John Hannah, known for his roles in lighter films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Sliding Doors). Hannah does a fine job, but the movie depends on the performances of the two actors who play the survivors. Czuczor (a star of Czech films who also played Rosencrantz in the 2018 British film Ophelia) has a strong presence that helps keep the movie riveting, and Ondrejicka as his more fragile compatriot also plays his role with aplomb.
This harrowing but well-made film reminds us of the importance of giving testimony to atrocity and injustice, a theme that retains its relevance in our troubling new century marked by a rise in authoritarian regimes around the world.
Cast: Noel Czuczor, Peter Ondrejicka, John Hannah, Jan Nedbal, Florian Panzner
Director: Peter Bebjak
Screenwriters: Jozef Pasteka, Tomas Bombik, Peter Bebjak
Based on the book by: Alfred Wetzler
Producers: Rasto Sestak, Peter Bebjak
Executive producer: Natalia Rau Guzinkiewiczova
Director of photography: Martin Ziaran
Production designer: Petr Synek
Costume designer: Katarina Strbova Bielikova
Editor: Marek Kralovsky
Music: Mario Schneider
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