The Tattooist of Auschwitz ★★★★

The new small-screen adaptation of Heather Morris’s contentious best-seller is an unmissable marvel

First published in 2018, The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris was a global best-selling book that ran into controversy over its historical inaccuracies. Now, a new limited series attempts to tackle this complex legacy. Both book and series are based on the testimony of Holocaust survivor Lali Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who was deported to Auschwitz and assigned to be a camp tattooist. Whilst scoring numbers into the arms of his fellow prisoners, he met his future wife Gita Furman. They fell in love and found each other again after the war, spending the rest of their lives together.

Straight away, the series doesn’t shy away from depicting its unreliable narrator. “Based on the memories of Holocaust survivor Lali Sokolov,” The opening text reads. Words begin to fade until only “the memories of Lali Sokolov” remain. The narrative is reframed around the elderly, recently widowed Lali (played by an almost-unrecognisable Harvey Keitel), telling his story to novice author Heather (Melanie Lynskey). As he recounts his experiences, we are taken back in time to witness events through the eyes of his younger self (Jonah-Hauer King).

More than anything else, this is a show about memory. We see a version of events as Lali recounts them to the author, followed by other, different versions – the ones he chooses to hide. Which versions are true? All of them or none? Lali is a man haunted by ghosts, literally. Figures from his past appear, sitting in the room with him when he talks to Heather and when he’s alone. They correct him on details and judge him for his actions. It’s a sophisticated portrayal of the way memory and survivor’s guilt interact.

This is big-budget, prestige television. The set design of the death camp is horrifying in its bleak, mud-soaked realism. It’s beautifully shot, whilst a haunting score co-composed by the legendary Hans Zimmer (Interstellar, Gladiator, Dunkirk) and Emmy-nominated Kara Talve drifts in and out. It does feel odd that Keitel plays the elderly Lali with an accent, whilst Hauer-King’s younger version doesn’t. The two actors also look very different, creating a disconnect between the two versions of the same character. This becomes more of an issue towards the end of the series as the timelines draw closer together.

Life in Auschwitz is portrayed as a fundamentally human experience, driven by human actions and relationships in all their complexity. The terror and cruelty of the camp is depicted in unflinching detail, but director Tali Shalom-Ezer deliberately seeks out flickers of light amongst the darkness. After all, this place of death is where Lali and Gita (Anna Próchniak) meet and fall in love. Even Lali’s relationship with his SS guard, Stefan Baretzki (a stunning performance by Jonas Nay), is approached with nuance. Stefan is a sadistic murderer, but he’s also a vulnerable man who seems to feel an emotional connection with Lali. Stefan saves Lali’s life and helps facilitate his relationship with Gita. “He was a brutal psychopath,” Heather declares during one of her conversations with Lali. “And I would not be alive today were it not for him,” he replies softly.

The source material may be flawed, but this adaptation is both intelligent and powerful.

By Barney Pell Scholes

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is available to stream on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.

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