Life & Culture

Love in hell: Tattooist of Auschwitz director explains why it was a tale she had to bring to the screen

My goal was to create a meaningful love story that takes place in this hell, says Tali Shalom-Ezer


Harrowing scenes: Anna Próchniak as Gita Furman

When Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer received a phone call asking if she was available to meet Heather Morris, author of the bestselling 2018 novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz while she was in Tel Aviv, she said she would be there in 30 minutes. “I just dropped everything and ran to the café.”

Morris’s book — a real-life love story set in Auschwitz — has been adapted into a six-part TV series, directed by Shalom-Ezer, 45. The book is based on Morris’s conversations with Lale Sokolov, an 86-year-old Slovakian Holocaust survivor and tätowierer — responsible for tattooing identification numbers on new arrivals — who fell in love with fellow prisoner Gita Furman while inking her arm; they later married and emigrated to Australia.

Starring Jonah Hauer-King and Harvey Keitel, as the younger and older versions of Sokolov, and Anna Próchniak (Gita) and Melanie Lynskey (Morris), this extraordinary drama, framed by flashbacks, is one man’s account of his survival.

“I learned a lot from meeting Heather Morris, she’s an incredible woman,” Shalom-Ezer tells me when we meet in a central London hotel. “I have so much appreciation for her. She devoted her life to telling Lale’s story and it was fascinating to hear how she spoke about him, how much love she has for him [he died in 2006].”

When Shalom-Ezer was first approached to direct the series, she felt strongly that she should do it. “I was very moved by the script. I loved Jacquelin Perske’s [the writer] interpretation and adaptation. It’s so interesting how the story unfolds,” she emphasises.” But did she have any fears about taking on the project? “Of course,” she replies softly.

When it was published, Morris’s novel caused controversy. There were criticisms about historical inaccuracies, including the number tattooed on Gita’s arm as well as the camp’s use of penicillin, which was not available until after the war. Did these controversies contribute to part of that fear? “I think my biggest fear was the feeling of responsibility in telling a Holocaust story, although it’s not the definitive Holocaust story, it’s Lale’s,” she says. “It’s so unique.”

Holocaust studies were prominent in Shalom-Ezer’s school studies in Israel. “We heard many stories, but I never heard one that was focused on a love story and that too was a [huge] fear: would I be able to find the right tone and do it in a respectful way? I don’t want anyone to feel that we’re trivialising it.” Her goal, she says, was to create a meaningful love story that takes place “in this hell”.

Being both Jewish and Israeli, I ask if she thinks she brought anything different or specific to the project? “It’s a good question. Of course, this story is very close to me, and I do have a personal connection to it, so maybe. My grandfather’s first wife and first daughter were murdered in Auschwitz, as were all his 11 siblings and his parents. He was the only one who survived,” she says.

“I have such admiration for Lale because he was able to share his history with the world. I knew so little. My grandfather never spoke about the Holocaust so it’s a real contrast. And I feel that because of Lale’s ability to tell his story, it became very important for me to share it.”

Members of the production team visited Auschwitz several times and consulted closely with the Auschwitz Museum before filming began in Slovakia. As part of her own research, Shalom-Ezer watched documentaries, read books as well as many testimonies of other survivors from the camp, including those of other tattooists. “Although we’re telling Lale’s story, and this is one memory, it’s so specific as he was not like other prisoners because he was a tattooist. He had some privileges and rights that other prisoners didn’t have.” She says she attempted to “understand something of the experience, but of course you can’t. It didn’t matter how many testimonies I read or heard.”

To reconstruct Auschwitz, the production designers worked with blueprint maps in order to achieve authenticity. “We chose a part of the camp where we wanted most of the scenes to take place — specific administration and processing buildings because Lale was working a lot in this area,” Shalom-Ezer explains. “According to our research, we tried to build the set as close as possible to reality, including how it might look at different angles.”

Shalom-Ezer admits that everything about the production was difficult for her. “Really. For the last two years that’s the only thing I focused on, [day and night]. It was what I was reading and dreaming about. So yeah, it was challenging. The guiding light for me was to focus on Lale’s experience, to try to be as close as possible to it, to try and imagine and [interpret] his fragmented memories: what he felt and saw.”

As part of her role as director, Shalom-Ezer always feels a strong sense of responsibility towards her actors, who, she says, by their very nature are fragile and sensitive, even more so in the context of this series. “When I worked with Jonas Nay, who plays SS officer Stefan Baretzki, it was important that it was clear that I knew the difference between the character and him. When we did a hard scene, after the cut I felt I had to come and hug him to [reassure] him that I remember he’s an actor.”

Shalom-Ezer is drawn to telling stories that have some connection to post trauma. It is not a rational decision, she says, but one evident in all her work, including the short films she made as a student and Princess (2014), her award-winning debut feature about a 12-year-old girl, played by Shira Haas, whose close relationship with her mother’s boyfriend becomes sexually abusive.

Her interest originates from watching her mother, a psychiatric nurse, use psychodrama with her patients. “Since I was a very young kid, I’d go to work with her and see a patient tell a traumatic story over and over as part of their healing process. I was attracted to that healing power of storytelling and feel a calling to find stories that are quite traumatic and what they can tell us about ourselves.”

Considering Lale experienced trauma, “I find it incredible that he could share the things he did — things he felt ashamed and guilty about in order to survive,” she says. “And the way Lale tells it is, in a way, a kind of healing process for him too. To understand what really happened, he had to go back to the past and collect the pieces of it into one meaningful narrative.”

Despite everything, Lale and Gita loved life. “Their strong love for life and belief in love was inspiring. I wish I had those same qualities, that optimism.” Shooting their wedding scene was a magical moment. “We tried to shoot in chronological order, so it was towards the end and the war was over,” she recalls. “All the cast and crew were sobbing, for excitement and joy. We were hugging each other because it felt like a real victory for us. We survived this.”

The continued interest in putting stories about the Holocaust on the big and small screen does not seem to lessen. Shalom-Ezer believes the reason is that “the event is so meaningful, a warning sign for everyone, not just for the Jewish people. We want to understand how something like this can happen because we want to understand ourselves.” But, she adds: “We will never have enough stories that can make us comprehend it.”

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is available on Sky Atlantic and NOW from May 2

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