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The Tattooist of Auschwitz movie review (2024)

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The Tattooist of Auschwitz movie review (2024)

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.

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