Champion of Auschwitz

Written & Directed by Maciej Barczewski

Poland/2020/91mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It is 1940. And the first transports to the newly constructed concentration camp Auschwitz have arrived.

Reclaiming an inspirational account from the Holocaust is a neigh-on difficulty, and even those films which manage lift the tale into problematic avenues. And this is not to say there are no tales to tell – to the contrary, there are hundreds of thousands of lives to draw out of history and remember. Few more so than the story surrounding ‘Teddy’ Tadeusz Pietrzykowski, a Warsaw boxer and soldier who was placed within Auschwitz as one of the first prisoners. A sporting hero, his morale enduring presence is irksome to the officer class, as are his capabilities with defeating fellow prisoners and German soldiers in bouts.

And few films embrace the natural grit and murk of the surroundings as Maciej Barczewski The Champion of Auschwitz, which maintains a gripping profuseness, as this Polish impelling of Teddy’s time within the camp and the impact his stature had on the fellow prisoners, and possibly German officers.

To be a champion is one thing – to be one in a time of crisis and circumstance is another. The rallying nature surrounding Piotr Glowacki’s performance is engrossing, capturing a fraction of the faith these men may have had at seeing a fellow prisoner secure one ounce of autonomy. Mesmeric, the lashings and beating and steadfast determination upon Glowacki’s face in his final Auschwitz bout are as terrifying as it is enrapturing. The descent into a man with nothing to lose, with one purpose and intention, is a scene of utter perfection amidst the mud and sweat.

Complimenting the sturdiness of the performance and aesthetic the classical scoring maintains a sense of gravitas through the film – structuring tones to accompany varying levels of drama, tension and yes, even humour. Witold Plóciennik’s framing of the film maintains a human element, colour is all but neglected from the piece, save for the bursts of a chance stolen apple or the crimson swirls of blood.

Gradually progressing up the ‘ranks’ of fighting, the back raises with the officer class who not only find disgust in a Polish prisoner stepping toe-to-toe with their ‘pure’ German soldiers, but with the encouragement, it offers fellow prisoners. The bond Teddy shares with Janek, a young Polish boy confined to the Camp, is as heart-wrenching as possible but slips the film into the slivers of humanity films pertaining to the Holocaust succeed on. Delicate, Jan Szydlowski channels such sincerity within the role of Janek, that the twisted knot of dread within our stomachs immediate pangs knowing that regardless of anything, there are no happy endings.

Touching, the relationship and comradery Glowacki shares with inmates is authentic but one-sided with the German officers. The pinnacle of cruelty and malevolence is a notorious role to play. The officers of Auschwitz, monstrosities of history, slip readily from human to abhorrent easily, but the reverse is equally as troublesome. Barczewski’s direction struggles to find balance with our antagonists, some veering into cartoonish tropes, others devoid of emotional response which strips away the genuine reason to find the Nazis so utterly terrifying – they were human.

It’s difficult when weighing the merits of a film covering one of history’s largest mass genocides and the atrocities of the Holocaust. Art that bases itself within the time frame of the War place itself in the vicinity of scrutiny, and the objective ‘good’ film feels a peculiarity to state. Artistically morose and resolute, The Champion of Auschwitz may play down the religious aspects of Tadeusz Pietrzykowski’s Catholicism but touches upon the flickering glimmers of faith these men and women placed within one another.

The Champion of Auschwitz will be available in UK Cinemas from September 3rd

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