Life & Culture

The Tattooist of Auschwitz review: ‘We see the brutality and the desperation’

This adaptation cleverly shows the problems of fictionalising a survivor’s haunted memories


Anna Próchniak as Gita Furman in Auschwitz.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Sky Atlantic

Is there anyone left who doesn’t know the story of Lale Sokolov, famous tattooist of Auschwitz, the man who fell in love in hell? His life formed the basis of a 2018 novel which has sold millions of copies worldwide, and now here comes Sky’s adaptation for television which should reach those few who’ve dodged it thus far.

I use the word ‘story’ very deliberately, because it is key to this show based on the blockbuster work of fiction written by Heather Morris which she crafted after many hours of interviews with the Holocaust survivor, here played by Hollywood star Harvey Keitel as a haunted, traumatised, guilt-ridden man, a most definitely unreliable narrator.

Morris is a character in this re-telling of the novel, and the framing is important. We learn right from the start that Lale, now an old man living alone in Australia, wants to tell his story to someone who’s not Jewish (now, why would that be?) and - it becomes clear - is not a historian, a journalist, or an experienced writer. Morris, played by Melanie Lynskey, tells him that she’s done one course in technical writing and another in memoir. She doesn’t even want to take notes as he starts to talk. Lale has found a therapeutic listener, not a Holocaust historian.

So when his narrative starts to unfold on the screen we’re fully aware that we’re seeing a possibly faulty and definitely compromised narrative through the gaze of a naïve and inexperienced story teller. And just to ram the point home, as the story is told, Lale is often visited by ghosts of the people he’s talking about. When he says goodbye to his mother, heart-breakingly for the last time - he gets a chance to replay the memory as he wishes it had gone, with a longer hug.

That these devices work surprisingly well is down to the craft of the (Jewish) screen writer Jacquein Perske and the (Jewish, Israeli) director, Tali Shalom Ezer as well as a cast (featuring many Jewish actors) which grabs your sympathy as soon as Lale is sacked from his job at a Bratislava store. Jewish actor Jonah Hauer-King plays the young Lale as a handsome, brave, caring, sensitive hero - just as we’d all like to be remembered - but in the future, we see his older self tell and retell his account, sometimes slipping a little and showing a more realistic side of the compromises made in order to survive. Likewise the view of Slovakian society, in which antisemitism is strictly for the Nazis, may well be explained by Morris’s viewpoint, and be shaped for an audience which prefers to think that they’d also have been handing out gifts to persecuted Jews.

“This is a love story,” Lale insists to Morris, and in the first episode he falls for Gita as she waits for him to tattoo a number onto her flesh. The way they talk - almost flirting - as she bares her arm, was the least convincing part of the whole episode. More touching was Lale’s friendship with Aron, played by young British Jewish actor Ilan Galkoff. The many close ups of ink eating into flesh made me flinch.

There is much to admire about this adaptation. Lale’s story is affecting and well told, and there is much care taken about the depiction of life in Auschwitz. We see the brutality, the desperation, the way that victims are stripped of their humanity. And gradually we lose some of the gloss that Lale puts on his story, the longing to be that great guy who shares some of his privileges that being a tattooist brings, and get a hint of the compromises he made in order to survive.

I’m curious to know how the dual narrative will develop. Will we see Heather Morris decide to blur the facts to create a Hollywood-style hero’s story? Will the controversy be covered when the Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre casts doubt on her methods? Might the dramatisation ask questions about the huge profits generated by this piece of Holocaust fiction and whether any of it has gone to Shoah charities? I doubt it. But on the evidence of this first episode, what the adaptation has done is widened the context of Lale’s story considerably, compared to the novel, to show the psychological difficulties that can affect a survivor who wants to tell the world about appalling crimes, and the distortions that can arise when a writer fictionalises the facts even if she has the best of intentions.

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