The Champion of Auschwitz is a historical drama about the life of Tadeusz “Teddy” Piertzykowski, a Polish political prisoner and one of the first people to be sent to Auschwitz.
As is often the case, there is a certain amount of artistic licence taken with history here. The movie portrays a quiet man dragged away from his home and family simply trying to survive. As one guard puts it “You cling to life with all your might.” Piertzykowski wants no more than to survive. It takes the eventual, though inevitable, death of Janek – a young prisoner and proxy son, played with empathy and vulnerability by Jan Szydlowski – to push Piertzykowski to fight for something more than just staying alive.
This is a far cry from the real man, who was caught in Hungary trying to escape to join the reforming Polish army after having volunteered with a light artillery regiment during the Siege of Warsaw. Nor do we see any real trace of the Piertzykowski who attempted to assassinate Rudolf Höss, the camp commandant, by sabotaging the saddle of Höss’ horse, or killed Hoss’ dog. A dog that had been trained to attack Jews and had killed at least one. After killing that dog he and other prisoners ate it. An incredible, real life moment that deserves to be in a film. Just not this film.
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But it is easy to understand why these choices were made. The Champion of Auschwitz may be predictable and overly reliant on tried and tested tropes to create empathy, but this is an incredibly difficult subject to translate to film. The challenge any filmmaker faces conveying the terrors and desperation of existing in a concentration camp are huge. It cannot be trivialised or sensationalised, yet a modern audience likely has no personal reference for the depravation and abject horror of that situation. Movies such as Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice, and the more recent Son of Saul leave audiences devastated and broken.
Yet in this film, as in real life, Piertzykowski succeeds not just mentally and emotionally, but physically as well. This is a journey through hell to salvation, and one that we the audience should take as well. To do this whilst also remaining true to the memories of those that died requires an incredibly difficult tightrope act, and it’s one that writer and director Maciej Barczewski manages. Even an avid history buff could forgive him.
The Champion of Auschwitz manages to hit the right emotional notes at the right time. It never veers into mawkishness, which is a relief, and taken alone it’s an inspiring, almost cathartic story. This is in no small part to the work of Piotr Glowacki as Pietrzykowski. His solemnity and quiet strength hold the film together. Opposite him is Grzegorz Malecki as the Rapportführer. Not exactly a sadistic man, but one who sees no value in the life of those he guards.
Malecki presents us with an arrogance and aloofness we’re used to seeing in the portrait of Nazi officers, yet he also brings a vulnerability to the part that humanises. The same can’t be said for Marcin Bosak’s Lagerführer, the officer in charge of Pietrzykowski’s camp. Every move, smirk and vocal inclination screams villain. But perhaps a movie portraying one of the most monstrous atrocities ever committed needs a monster to be its face?
Despite the story arc, this can still be a tough watch, though the ease with which prisoners are killed is thankfully never gratuitous. Bosak tends to rely on contrast to show us the suffering of the prisoners. The way the guards and their family live in comfort verging on decadence sharpens our sympathy for the hardships suffered by people they barely acknowledge. Another striking choice is the way the horrors of one of the most powerful symbols of the holocaust – the gas chambers – is depicted.
We experence that suffering through the sounds of the dying rather than seeing it on screen. It becomes something of a recurring theme, and ends up more haunting than any of the on screen murders that take place. Witold Płóciennik as cinematographer has opted for a golden sepia tone throughout the film. It manages to highlight the bleakness yet also emphasise moments of beauty. At times verging on almost completely bleached of colour, it creates a vintage feel which further draws us in.
Although a film like this can serve as inspiration of humanity’s ability to overcome evil, it is equally important that it reminds us of our ability to perpetrate evil, as well. Warning as well as motivation. Using that criteria The Champion of Auschwitz doesn’t exactly fail, but nor does it succeed. Not destined to be a classic of the genre, it is still a worthy entry and an exciting first feature length film from the director.
The Champion of Auschwitz is out in Cinemas from 3rd September.