Filming has started on the Sky television adaptation of bestselling novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz after a long and occasionally fraught development process.
Harvey Keitel will star as tattooist Lale Solokov. Up-and-coming British Jewish actor Jonah Hauer-King, whose maternal grandparents fled Warsaw in the 1930s, will play Lale as a younger man and Polish actress Anna Próchniak will play his lover Gita. Further cast include Tallulah Haddon (Kiss Me First, The Last Duel) as Hanna, Mili Eshet (Beyond the Mountains, Hills) as Ivana, Yali Topol Margalith in her first screen role as Cilka, Phénix Brossard (Little Joe, Benjamin) as Leon, Ilan Galkoff (Good Omens, Hilda) as Aaron, and Marcel Sabat (Tenet, The Windermere Children) as Tomas.
The book sold 12 million copies around the world and sparked a huge trend in Holocaust novels. But from the start it was controversial.
A true love story, it was based on the memories of Auschwitz tattooist Lale and centred on his unlikely romance with fellow inmate Gita Furman after he branded her arm. The two found each other after the camp was liberated and married. After it was published, the Auschwitz Museum published six pages of factual errors. They ranged from the small — incorrect descriptions of the train route the protagonist took to get to Auschwitz — to the bigger, such as the untrue story of SS soldiers pouring a poisonous liquid from a canister through the hole in the roof of a bus and a “relationship” between an SS officer and a Jewish camp inmate.
Author Heather Morris later fell out with Gary, the son of Lale and Gita, and the person who had introduced her to his parents. The television series will feature how she came to write the story with The Last of Us actress Melanie Lynskey, who is Jewish, playing the non-Jewish Morris.
None of its producers are Jewish and neither is its lead writer Jacquelin Perske, and there were questions over whether or not this sensitive story should be told by Jews. But British Jewish writers have been brought in to help, while it will be directed by Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer, who says of the project: “In Auschwitz, a factory of death and dehumanisation, Lale and Gita’s love story is an act of defiance. It is the choice to remain human.”
I’m also told that the television adaptation will ensure it gets all the history correct and has hired Naomi Gryn, the daughter of Auschwitz survivor and esteemed Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn, as an adviser.
Films such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, while big hits at the box office, have proved controversial, with the stories focusing more on non-Jews than Jews. At a time of rising Holocaust denial, it is vital that this story is told correctly.
One of the most moving and life-affirming non-fiction films of the year has been made by Jewish Storyville commissioner Lucie Kon about the life of “Bowelbabe” Dame Deborah James and it will air on BBC2 on Monday, April 17.
The story is particular personal for Kon, who became friends with James after being diagnosed with cancer herself. “I was diagnosed with breast cancer just before the first lockdown and I didn’t know anyone who had it,” she told me. “I started listening to the podcast You, Me and the Big C and following all the presenters on Instagram. I loved what Deborah was doing — all the memories she was making for her kids and, most of all, how fun she seemed.”
She commissioned James to be a reporter on a Panorama special she executive produced about how the pandemic was stopping vital cancer treatment for some people, and the two became friends. Kon then started working on the new film last year.
“Deborah was a natural, and working with her always meant a lot of laughter. She kept saying, ‘Where you’ve got options, you’ve got hope’ and that wasn’t something I had realised before. Before I met her, I was so scared I was struggling to sleep, but then you meet someone like her and you realise you need to live a little instead of sitting around worrying. That felt so powerful and I think that is the message she gave to everyone around her.”
The film-makers had access to thousands of hours of footage from James’s friends and family as well her appearances on the You, Me and the Big C podcast. It is certainly sad but it is also joyous in the way it depicts James’s insatiable and important lust for life.