The Reality of the Camp
Uwe Boll, the controversial German director, shows us the harsh reality of what went on inside the most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps. Aside from the film itself, there is documentary footage and interviews with German teens about
what they know about the Holocaust. In the film itself, Boll combines archival footage, dramatic reenactments and current on-camera interviews and the film gives the viewer an understanding of the “how” and “why” of genocide. This is a sobering perspective on a powerful, compelling and tragic piece of world history. Boll deliberately used a dull tone in the film which makes a deafening statement of presence; almost as if we found ourselves suddenly in Auschwitz.
The film begins with a commentary from the Uwe Boll himself (who also appears later as an SS gas-chamber guard) about his motive for making this film. Then young German teenagers are interviewed about the Holocaust. They do not know much about it, according to the film, though we cannot know if they really represent the German students in general.
The introductory section is followed by the main section of the film which is dramatized part and attempts to describe what it was like being in Auschwitz. Boll’s perception on the dehumanizing processing at the concentration camp is unique and he shows it to us in a scene of two German officers discussing the killings matter-of-factly. However, the director’s attempt to realize “a day in the life” at the concentration camp is brief and very heavy-handed. It is also weakened by other lengthy and poorly-edited scenes with graphic and gratuitous violence. The last part of the film contains another group interviews with the German students who seem to be quite informed, not like the students in the first group. I really wanted this to be a definitive look at the camp but it seems that being a low budget film, it was restricted with what it could do. The technical inadequacies hurt the film overall.
“Auschwitz” is unique in that it was written and directed by Uwe Boll, a notorious B-movie “schlockmaster” with something of a poor reputation and this has hurt him in the reception of his films. The film “Auschwitz” would have attracted me regardless of the director because it is a topic, that as a Jew and an Israeli citizen, that I am deeply interested in (although I have seen some really badly made films about the Holocaust). Even though I really had no reason to think that Boll had an agenda, I suspected that I might be somewhat amused by his film and I am glad to say that I was wrong. Not only was this better than other Boll films I have seen, it is actually a very good movie, even with its flaws. I knew this the moment that the film began and Boll addresses the watchers with a monologue in which he explained one of the impetuses behind his decision to make this particular Holocaust film. “I think it was time to… just showed what it really was. The horror.”
We have seen Holocaust films that focus on personal stories and triumphs and this makes it easy to hide the horror that was there. Those who experienced the Holocaust and lived to talk about it remind us that it was unremittingly dehumanizing, bleak, and hopeless. Other films have dulled popular conceptions of the inescapable suffering and tragedy that most of its victims endured and instead making the event seem like “just another backdrop for Hollywood period pieces.”
“Auschwitz” does neither. In the middle of the movie is a 37-minute reenactment of a normal day at the Auschwitz concentration camp and it holds nothing back in its unsparingly brutal narrative. Jews are packed onto trains, herded to the camps, and forced to strip down. Officers register the new inmates based on gender and age, while only a few buildings away camp guards execute babies because they are too young to be of any use as laborers. When the gas chambers are turned on, we actually see the people inside as they scream and panic and convulse in agony. We see no heroes and there were none then at that point. It was Boll’s goal is to show the cruel norm and not the exception. To the extent that we have main characters, they are the officers, guards, and other camp personnel, who are presented by Boll not as the snarling villains usually presented to us in Hollywood depictions, but rather as 9-to-5 day workers, otherwise normal men whose daily routine just happens to be monotonous and to involve unspeakable evil instead of standard white or blue collar drudgery. By doing this, Boll reveals an understanding of the basic problem with overt vilification; when you condemn a certain action, you make it easy for others to believe that they could never commit similar acts of evil, since they’re given the impression that the only people capable of such things are the most obvious of monsters.
This is what Hannah Arendt said about the banality of evil. Some of history’s greatest atrocities were caused not by fanatics and sociopaths, but by otherwise well-adjusted and “normal” people who simply accepted the malevolent premises of the place and time they inhabited. This “banality of evil” is the central feature of Boll’s Auschwitz reenactment. By making the Nazis generic and identifiable even as they commit heinous acts, Boll reminds us that the potential for great evil exists within all of us. He even reinforces this message by bravely casting himself as one of the guards who eats a sandwich casually as he yells orders at the Jewish inmates or nodding off to sleep while leaning against the door to the gas chamber where Jews are in the process of being killed. In the film’s best scene, the camera lingers on two guards who are engaged in casual conversation. As they cover routine office chit-chat — updates on pregnant wives and funny family stories to requests for vacation leave and the occasional work-related complaint (two of the oven burners keep malfunctioning) – and we the viewers notice a faint rhythmic pounding in the background. Barely audible at first, it steadily becomes louder, gradually drawing our attention and then our curiosity until it suddenly becomes obvious that what we are hearing are the gas chamber inmates slamming desperately against the walls as they succumb to the poison. By letting the audience piece this together itself, Boll skillfully allows the sinister indifference of the Nazi personnel to sink in on its own, rather than attempting to force the point. This revelation and its moral implications insofar as the mindsets of the Nazis are concerned makes it all so much more terrifying and horrible.
Boll’s idea to bring in the high school students for interviews was interesting but the interviews are not focused or structured. Topics are explored substantively and they jump from theme to theme. There are even students who get the facts wrong and then there are times when they show brilliant understandings of history. We are not sure whether Boll intends to portray young people as being generally uninformed about the past – the position stated in his introductory monologue – or he merely wishes to offer a general overview as to their perspectives. Finally, some of Boll’s research was at times sloppy especially when he says that about 50% of the people on Earth don’t know about the Holocaust but he offers no proof for that statement.
As I said before, even with its flaws and weaknesses, this is a very powerful film. It is very hard to watch but very important that we see it. Evil here is reduced to clerical activity and to small talk. The film threads a fine line in which some might see it as irony but hopefully most will see it and questions themselves and the world that let this happen. The film demanded that it reach a point at which it could not be seen as a work of art as it shakes us to our very beings. Think about the last film that made you feel that way. It is important and it is timely that we be shaken by what happens to people by the hands of others.