It sometimes feel as if the Holocaust and Nazi Germany are subjects that have been exhausted on screen, but filmmakers continue to return to those dark times: The past few months have already seen the festival premieres of two striking animated films, “Where Is Anne Frank” and “Charlotte,” and the recent Toronto Film Festival also brought Barry Levinson’s “The Survivor,” with Ben Foster as an Auschwitz inmate haunted by what he did to make it through the war.
Slovakian director Peter Bebjak’s “The Auschwitz Report” had a slight head start on those other films, premiering in its home country in January and being chosen as the Slovak Oscar entry in last year’s race. Now receiving a U.S. release, the film is dark and grueling; it finds a new lens on the Holocaust and tells an unfamiliar story in a way that brings home both the unfathomable horror and the difficulty in getting people to grasp that horror.
Noel Czuczor and Peter Ondrejička play “Freddy” and “Valér,” characters based on the real-life Auschwitz inmates Alfred Wetzler and Rudolph Vrba. The two Slovak Jews escaped from the camp in April 1944, taking with them documents detailing both how the camp was laid out and the scale of its mass exterminations. While their accounts were initially met with skepticism, they were published in part two months after the escape, with a full English translation not coming for seven months.
“The Auschwitz Report” begins with the familiar George Santayana quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” a rather obvious opening line that is soon washed away in the chaos of the camp: screams, gunshots, a man hanging by his neck and slowly strangling, a pile of corpses … The screen shifts from black-and-white to color, but it’s color drained of any vibrancy; for much of the film, the action plays out in mud and fog and darkness.
In this setting, Freddy and Valér decide to risk it all by documenting what’s going on in the camp and getting it to “important people back in Slovakia.” Their reasoning is clear: “The important people will send planes. And the planes will blast this place into oblivion.” And if that kills all the prisoners along with the Nazis, so be it: “Forget about us. We’re dead already.”
The key to the escape, in a way, is that Auschwitz guards would look for missing prisoners for three days inside the camp, then call off the perimeter guards. So Freddy and Valér bury themselves under a stack of wood palettes, spreading tobacco and gasoline to prevent guard dogs from discovering them for the three days it’ll take before guards stop patrolling the outer fence.
The two men stay in place, and so does the movie: For much of its running time, it cuts between the men lying in their hiding place and the prisoners who are standing outside their barracks for days and nights on end, undergoing brutal punishment for letting two of their number escape. The violence is rarely graphic, but it doesn’t have to be graphic to be horrifying.
As a filmmaker, Bebjak is fond of jumping around in time and of shooting from low angles that sometimes seem melodramatic. It’s a disorienting approach, but that’s the point – we don’t need to understand the details of the plan to understand the stakes.
Freddy and Valér don’t get out of the camp until the second half of the film, when they make it through the fence and head for the border. In a way, there’s more action in the second half, but it’s muted action: waiting, walking, talking, typing, talking some more, as the men grow more and more frustrated with the reaction to their information.
“What do you expect us to do?” says one official, who waits for the Red Cross to arrive and can’t understand why their accounts differ so dramatically from the official line they’ve heard about the camps. “I thought you were the resistance,” says Freddy. “If you can’t help us, we’ve come to the wrong place.”
In a way, this is a side of the Holocaust we rarely see on screen: the reluctance of Western bureaucracy to accept a truth that they can barely comprehend. It makes the final scenes of “The Auschwitz Report,” set in bland offices, almost as scary as the ones set in the camps.
And the final credits hearken back to the opening line from Santayana by playing out to a series of soundbites from anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ and nationalistic politicians around the world, from Slovakia’s Maroš Šefčovič to Donald Trump. Again it’s a little obvious, but it’s also an effectively disturbing way to conclude a film that finds a new way to address a familiar subject.
“The Auschwitz Report” is being released by the Samuel Goldwyn Co. on Friday, Sept. 24 in selected theaters and VOD platforms.