The Spool / Reviews
The Tattooist of Auschwitz looks beyond the concentration camp
The Peacock limited series is at its best when it explores life after survival.
NetworkPeacock,
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7.3
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The Tattooist of Auschwitz opens on Lale Sokolov (Harvey Keitel in the 2000s “present-day” sequences) living in Australia. He’s decided the time has come to commit his life story to paper. A nurse with writing aspirations Heather Morris (Melanie Lynskey), (the real-life writer behind the inspired by actual events but labeled historical fiction source material) is referred by someone in the community to help. With little prologue, he dives in, describing how he “volunteered” for a program about defending Jewish communities. Unfortunately, it was a trap. The train ride takes him to Auschwitz instead.

While imprisoned there, he (Jonah Hauer-King in flashbacks) became one of the tattooists. The position leads him to meet the love of his life, fellow prisoner Gita Furman (Anna Próchniak). Additionally, the position gave him a certain level of consideration not accorded to others, including access to medications. On the other hand, he faces resentment among the prisoners and decades of survivor’s guilt.

The book—and its two subsequent spinoffs/sequels—has a certain amount of controversy surrounding it. While I’m not an expert on the Holocaust, I feel it is at least important to acknowledge that fact. Wanda Witek-Malicka from the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center publicly worried that the book engaged in excessive “exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements” that could render its text “dangerous and disrespectful to history.”

The Tattooist of Auschwitz (Peacock)
Harvey Keitel and Melanie Lynskey face the past. (Photo by: Martin Mlaka/Sky UK)

That kind of rebuffing of the source material complicates an already difficult assignment. If I’m honest, I don’t exactly trust myself reviewing media about the Holocaust. It is so momentous and horrifying it renders stories about it difficult to regard with any kind of critical eye. How does one evaluate the art of revealing humanity at its absolute worst? How do you watch one of the largest and most widespread campaigns of evil without feeling emotionally overwhelmed?

A secondary issue is that the overwhelming horror creates a certain sameness in stories about it. It is irresponsible not to show the terrible conditions, the sadistic guard, the starvation, and, the mass graves. When so much must be done, it can be hard to find the space for something new. 

On fulfilling its responsibility, The Tattooist of Auschwitz does its due diligence. The monstrous acts Lale (endures and witnesses are terrible and traumatic. It does find spaces for slightly unusual observations, including that while Nazis had an incredible capacity for senseless murder, they were not as “efficient” as they are sometimes credited. They were frequently impulsive, random, and self-defeating in their bloodlust. Fast and at high capacities are not the same as efficient, and the series serves as a smart reminder that we often overestimate monsters.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz (Peacock)
Anna Próchniak survives inside the walls. (Photo by: Martin Mlaka/Sky UK)

To that end, Jonas Nay’s depiction of SS Officer Baretski suggests something worse than a “just following orders” cog in the machine and more pitiable than a true-believing sadist. Nay and the show never makes excuses for Baretski but it also makes it clear that there is something deeply wrong about the officer apart from his role as a Nazi thug. When he identifies Lale as “like a brother to me” in a late episode, it’s clear he’s being honest and has no idea how much worse that makes his behaviors. 

By and large, though, the events within the camps will be familiar to anyone who has read a novel or watched a film or television show about the Holocaust. Where The Tattooist of Auschwitz separates itself from other similar stories is in its depiction of life after the camps. It captures how the end of “liberation” by the Russian Army did not end the suffering for many. The series depiction of the comparatively small-scale tragedies that break Lale is a thoughtful look at how resilience is a finite resource. There are additional struggles that follow Lale and Gita to Australia, including a brutal reminder of their times in Auschwitz, that further the thesis that the Holocaust didn’t stop at the end of World War II.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz (Peacock)
Anna Próchniak and Jonah Hauer-King support each other. (Photo by: Martin Mlaka/Sky UK)

The Tattooist of Auschwitz also explores Morris’s arc well. Rarely does vicarious traumatization get as much screentime as it does here, nor is it as well-depicted. The character’s eventual overcoming of it reads as a bit too much of a plot contrivance—“well, continuing to show this kind of drags the pacing down”. Still, while in the spotlight, it is a bracing and honest depiction of how trauma can indeed prove contagious.

Hauer-King and Keitel make for an intriguing double act. Hauer-King nicely captures the steady unraveling of Lale’s personality throughout his imprisonment as the actor seemingly retracts into himself more and more with each minute passed. Keitel, by contrast, is almost entirely internal, making the moments he cracks—venomously spitting “fuck” at spectres of villains long since dead—carry more weight.

Unfortunately, while Próchniak is quite good as Gita, there’s very little of her. The series holds her at a distance, presumably to mirror Lale’s perspective during their time in the camps. It makes sense from a symbolic perspective, but it means Gita only intermittently comes to life as a full-fledged person. Too often, she’s a goal and an ideal, too perfect for character depth.

As a work of Holocaust fiction (or near-non-fiction), The Tattooist of Auschwitz is competent enough. Its recitation of occurrences recalls other series, films, and books that did it first or realized it further. However, as a chronicle of how the Holocaust’s fallout echoed throughout one’s life, it proves both more insightful and affecting. 

Every episode of The Tattooist of Auschwitz can be watched on Peacock, starting May 1.

NetworkPeacock,
SimilarA League of Nobleman, Alexandr Dumas starší, And Then There was One Yuriko, Anna Karenina, Annika, Återkomsten, Atomic Train, Blackeyes, Bodies, Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, Captains and the Kings, Chicken Nugget, Christopher Columbus, Close Relations, Conquistadores: Adventum, Dark Winds, Dexter, Elizabeth R, Fallen, Faraway Downs, Fearless, G.B.H., Game of Thrones, Genesis, Good Morning Children, Gossip Girl, Howards End, I Just Want To See You, Jekyll, Kiri, Life of Shakespeare, Long Time No See, Miss Marple: The Body in the Library, My Ride, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Planet of the Apes Power Rangers Dino Force Brave, Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story, Pride and Prejudice Quatermass II, Rebus, Scully Six Survivors, Spies of Warsaw, Tales from the Neverending Story Tales of the South Seas, The Bourne Identity, The Brothers Karamazov, The Debt, The House in the Woods, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, The Jungle, The Killing Kind, The Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Die Neue These, The Ordinary World, The Quatermass Experiment, The Serial Killer's Wife, The Singing Detective, The Sleuth of Ming Dynasty, The Sun Also Rises, The Woods, Tira, To Kill a Cop, Toussaint Louverture, Troubles, Ultraviolet, World War II: When Lions Roared,