The trouble with making a movie that centres around the Holocaust is that you are bound to split opinion; for all the people who liked the Oscar winning Schindler’s List, there was an equally vocal reaction that said it was a huge misrepresentation of the past. Even straight up documentaries such as Night and Fog are not immune from criticism, whether it is about the tone of the narration they use or some of the sources they elected to leave out. What sets Uwe Bolls film apart is that it wants to tell the story of the camp on a typical day, from arriving on a train to being burned in an oven. This leaves it open to being accused of simply being too gruesome. But to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick, if you were to make a proper film about the Holocaust, it would have to be unfilmable.
Around the scenes that are shot on set, we see young German teenagers interviewed about what they know about the Second World War, National Socialism, and about the concentration camps. Unfortunately these sections are a bit erratic as the interviews tend to jump from one topic to another, while popping back to the same faces before introducing some new ones. Was everyone asked the same questions? What was cut? It was just lacking a general flow. But these aren’t the scenes that caused certain critics to be up in arms. At the centre of the film is the trip to Auschwitz and what is shown there; herds of people being gassed, babies being shot in the head, corpses being brought to the furnaces and placed inside.
But to say these scenes are too gruesome I think is wrong. Unsettling of course yes; and there is always grounds to say that any movie, not just this one, only serves to rehumiliate the victims of the Holocaust by putting their suffering on screen. It is a fine line a director has to tread. If you can watch the trailer, you won’t be too off put by what appears in the movie. There aren’t buckets of blood or brains splattered all over walls or anything. Maybe it would be easier for people to take, if there was an axe wielding, cackling maniac doing the killing rather than the everyman soldiers that are shown. But make no mistake, this is not a Nazi apologist movie, it does not delve into the reasons for the extermination camps, the inner workings of the SS, the reasons why such and such company won the contract to make ZyklonB, or anything like that. It just purports to show a day in the camp; the utter lack of humanity shown is the real horror here.
There are a few problems that let the movie down. Most of it is shot in first person at eye level, but there is a scene from inside the gas chamber from high up to give a view of the whole room, a view that no one would have seen the Holocaust from. Also in this shot, there are only about 20 people inside, whereas guards talk of truckloads of 400 or 500 Jews being transported. More extras should have been used for these scenes; it wouldn’t have been very efficient if most of the room was empty space. Sonderkommandos who survived confirmed that some people simply died standing up as there was barely any room to fall over. Soldiers in the film talk of the advance of the Russians, so I presumed it is set later in the war when the gas chambers were built to house nearly a thousand people at a time.
The scenes where toddlers are taken from their mothers arms and shot was another problem. Too many cuts back and forth are made, robbing the soldier of any moral thought (if there could be any) around his actions. The camera should have been placed further back and no slow motion used I felt. The way it was done only served to create a distinction between the killing of the young and the old.
This is not a sit down with some popcorn movie; there are no heroes, no love story, no fancy special effects or soundtrack. The people are faceless, and I think that is what some critics have a problem with. If you want stories than I suggest you watch Claude Lanzmanns nine hour documentary Shoah, and that includes accounts that are far more horrifying that anything in Bolls film. Auschwitz is an important film in the canon of Holocaust movies because it is so matter of fact about the whole thing. Other films hint at what goes on in a gas chamber, Boll shows it, is his film any worse for doing this?Of course showing one day, ignores the other years of extermination that was carried out. You can’t watch this film expecting answers or even reasons for the atrocity. I recommend you read books by Raul Hilberg, or if you prefer, from someone who was really there, Primo Levi. A visit to the vast collection of accounts on Yad Vashem is also recommended. http://www.yadvashem.org It was a shocking period in the history of our times, and something that still resonates today. Genocide has affected places all over the globe in the twentieth and twenty first centuries. The holocaust was responsible for over six million deaths, this film only shows a glimpse of that horror while asking have we learned anything, and that’s the really shocking part. It is a film you really should see. Auschwitz is available now on DVD.