21 May2021

The Guardian: The Auschwitz Escape review – death camp’s secrets uncovered in powerful drama

Two prisoners at the extermination camp make a perilous bid for freedom in an
intense, disturbing Holocaust story based on real events
Leslie Felperin
In 1944, two Jewish Slovaks, Rudolf Vrba (Peter Ondrejička) and Alfred Wetzler
(Noel Czuczor), both of them prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau, hide in some
wooden pallets and wait for a moment to escape. Carrying documents that will
prove what is really happening in the extermination camp, they manage to
make it through the fence and into the forest, an escape that precious few
managed. Meanwhile, those who stayed behind, some of whom risked their
lives to help Vrba and Wetzler escape, are cruelly punished by the camp guards.
This dramatised account of a true story plays like a grim high-stakes thriller as
we root for the two men to make it over the border. Their names may be
unfamiliar, but even for those who know about the Auschwitz Protocols – a
report to which the pair contributed that has a weighty legacy in Holocaust
history – the film is still intensely impactful. Inevitably, it is profoundly upsetting
and disturbing.
Nevertheless, Slovak director Peter Bebjack has managed to make a film that
relates this chapter of history in a new way, employing inventive cinematic
techniques to present the material. For instance, Bebjak and cinematographer
Martin Ziaran often film the action with an upside-down camera, thus mimicking
the point of view of the protagonists. The colours are all bleached out to a near
monochrome palette, soggy and grey as the Polish mud.
Elsewhere, flashbacks and dreams intermingle to keep you always a little off
balance. Long takes track slowly through scenes of horror, and a few sequences
take place in a darkened room where hundreds of naked corpses are stacked up
like lumber. It is particularly upsetting that this last setting is barely noticed by
the characters as they go about their business, as if they see this sort of thing
every day.
The acting is extraordinary throughout, especially from the two leads, and John
Hannah offers a beautifully underplayed cameo as a Red Cross employee who
almost can’t believe his ears towards the end of the film.
The Auschwitz Escape is released on 14 May on digital platforms.