Auschwitz (2011)

“Hello. I’m Uwe Boll, the writer, director and producer of the film Auschwitz. I am responsible for this movie.”

For Boll formally to introduce his latest film like this, direct to camera, switching from his native German to English and back again, might seem something of a provocation. After all, this is the director whose independently funded adaptations of video games like House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark and In The Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale have earned him near universal (if rather unfair) vilification as ‘the world’s worst living director’. This is the director whose lesser known films Seed and Stoic (arguably his best works) brought real-life horrors and unflinchingly extreme genre set-pieces into an uneasy union that seemed to court accusations of both offensiveness and exploitation. This is the director who has pitted a sexy half-vampire against the SS in BloodRayne: The Third Reich, and who, in Postal, appeared as a grotesque caricature of himself, all dressed in felt cap and lederhosen and boasting that his films are financed with “Nazi gold”.

All of which is to say that Boll hardly appears to be the safest pair of hands to steer a docudrama about the Holocaust – and in overtly asserting his ownership of Auschwitz, he risks adding to its inherently confronting material the further controversies of his own public persona. Yet anyone drawn to this film in the hope of deliriously tasteless schlock is bound to be disappointed, for Auschwitz is an unexpectedly serious, sober and sensitive history lesson from Boll. It is a much-needed corrective to the director’s own battered reputation, as well as to the tendency of mainstream cinema about the Holocaust period to focus on the heroes, saviours or survivors who were in fact a minority at the time.

In the reconstruction of a day at Auschwitz that forms the centre-piece of Boll’s film, there is no-one to root for, no hero, no special story arc – just the bureaucratic sorting and processing of a trainload of Jews who are stripped of their belongings and quickly sent into the ‘shower rooms’ where they are gassed en masse (save for the infants who are instead shot outside), their hair and teeth to be collected later. The names and passports of each new arrival are taken by officials, but the only name that we get to hear, Gossner, belongs to one of two SS officers who, in a scene of chilling banality, we see drinking together and chatting about their family life, their various problems at work (staff and food shortages, faulty ‘ovens’, ‘picky’ comrades who refuse to shoot Jews), and their muted anxiety about an attack from vengeful Russians. Throughout this conversation they ignore what we cannot – the constant background thud of hands hammering on the gas chamber’s walls, as naked prisoners try desperately (and in vain) to escape deadly suffocation.

Boll’s approach to these scenes is to strip away entirely the aesthetic pleasures of drama, action or even characterisation, and instead to emphasise the process and the mechanics of mass extermination. Far from being demonised as moustache-twirling villains, the SS guards are depicted as working men, each with his assigned task (including Boll himself as the ‘undressing room’ supervisor), and Boll lets the horrific nature of their work speak for itself by showing precisely what happens to their prisoners, from first arrival to death and beyond. It is all too cold and clinical to be considered exploitative entertainment – which is another way of saying that Boll is indeed entirely responsible in his handling of such difficult materials.

At either end of this horrific reconstruction comes its careful justification, presented in documentary form. First Boll sets out his aims to camera: he has made a film “which actually shows what it was, what Auschwitz was” to counteract the benightedness about genocide in general and the Holocaust in particular that he has encountered in his travels. To underline the need for such didacticism, he includes a series of interviews with present-day German teenagers who (with one admirable exception) showcase an alarming degree of ignorance and even indifference with regard to their own nation’s recent history. All this is intercut with actual stills and archival footage of concentration camp atrocities, to remind us of just what risks being forgotten amidst these school pupils’ assertions that “over one thousand” people died in a Holocaust that took place “in the 1800s… or the 1960s, or the 16th Century”, when “the Germans tried to get the Jews out on a train, but it was too late because the Russians arrived.”

It is arguable that the ignorance that these pupils display is not really addressed by Auschwitz itself, whose central reenactment comes without commentary and requires, for its proper interpretation, a certain base of knowledge about what it depicts. One might also, given that Holocaust denial is an unfortunate reality of our times, question the wisdom of including a reenactment at all, when it will always be open to accusations of inaccuracy or fictionality – and the truth is that Auschwitz is neither as well-researched, nor as exhaustively detailed, as the best documentaries on the Holocaust, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. Yet Boll’s personal film essay redirects attention to one of the twentieth century’s most important episodes, and poses crucial questions about the responsibilities of us all as members of the human race.

© Anton Bitel