As the closing credits started rolling on the new German documentary Auschwitz, I found myself thinking - of all things - of a line from the 2007 Pixar feature Ratatouille, one of my favorite movies:
"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read."
While films about the Holocaust aren't usually magnets for negative criticism, Auschwitz is unique in that it was written and directed by Uwe Boll, a notorious B-movie schlockmeister whose resume includes celluloid atrocities like House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, BloodRayne, and Blubberella. Specializing primarily in video game adaptations, Boll's reputation is so poor that he is widely considered one of the worst filmmakers of all time. Inevitably, this has turned his work into catnip for aficionados of uproariously scathing movie reviews: See Scott Brown of Entertainment Weekly writing that "when the giant, intelligent bees of the future sift through the ashes of our civilization, they will find Alone in the Dark, and they will understand," or Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel viewing BloodRayne and simply asking, "Who is Uwe Boll and why does he hate moviegoers so?" Boll, in turn, has responded to this universal disdain in a number of unflattering ways, from bitterly lashing out against the writers and actors he blames for his failures, to challenging five of his fiercest critics to a series of boxing matches (an experienced pugilist, Boll won each time).
Of course, I would have been interested in Auschwitz even if it hadn't been directed by Boll. As the erstwhile target of childhood anti-Semitic bullying that culminated in a hate crime which nearly cost me my life (when I was 12 a group of my peers dragged me into a lake and held my head under water while chanting "Drown the Jew!"), I naturally have a preexisting interest
in media pieces that focus on historical and contemporary persecution of Jews. Nevertheless,
the knowledge of Boll's involvement gave me an additional, and admittedly puckish, reason to follow up on the film. While I didn't think I would be offended (there was no sensible reason to believe Boll's agenda wasn't honorable), I fully expected to be amused. After all, Boll's cinematic efforts usually entertain their audiences as unintentional comedy, to say nothing of providing writers with great material, as indicated above.
My goal of roasting Boll's film was thwarted by the simple fact that his movie wasn't just better than his normal fare. It was actually good. Genuinely, legitimately good.
The first sign that I was in for a surprise came in the opening four minutes. As Boll directly addressed the audience in an introductory monologue that alternated between English and German, he explained one of the impetuses behind his decision to make this particular Holocaust film:
"The movies that get made about it [the Holocaust] are more telling to heroes, like people tried to kill Hitler - von Stauffenberg (a key figure in the July 20th assassination plot and the main character in Valkyrie), whatever - or we have special people, they helped Jews, like Schindler's List and The Pianist and so on. And I think it was time to actually do something that omitted that part, that just showed what it really was. The horror."
Boll's observation here is astute. While Schindler's List and The Pianist are modern classics (in my opinion, at least), their focus on tales of personal triumph makes it easy to obscure the fact that - for the vast majority of those who experienced the Holocaust - the ordeal was unremittingly dehumanizing, bleak, and hopeless. Films like Jakob the Liar and Life Is
Beautiful have even added borderline fantastical elements into our cultural understandings of the Holocaust, dulling 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 is certainly an antidote for that. The midsection of the movie - a 37-minute reenactment of a normal day at the Auschwitz concentration camp - pulls no punches in its unsparingly brutal narrative. Jews are packed into trains, herded into 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.
There are no heroes in this sequence, nor should there be, since Boll's clear goal is to show the cruel norm rather than spotlight the occasional miraculous 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 monotonous daily routine just happens 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 by painting its perpetrators as grotesque caricatures, 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.
In fact, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt famously pointed out, many of history's greatest atrocities were executed 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 main guards, casually munching on a sandwich as he barks out orders to 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 the gamut of routine office chit-chat - from 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) - the audience begins to notice a faint rhythmic pounding in the background. Barely audible at first, it steadily increases in volume, 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. As a result, the revelation - and its moral implications insofar as the mindsets of the Nazis are concerned - is much more horrifying.
This isn't to say that Auschwitz lacks serious flaws. Instead of letting his reenactment of concentration camp life stand on its own, Boll bookends it with a series of interviews conducted with German high school students on the Holocaust. There is certainly merit to the idea of probing the opinions of young people on this subject, especially given the genocides occurring today in places like Darfur, the rising prevalence of Holocaust denial, and the politicization of Holocaust memory on issues ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the Turkish immigration crisis in Germany. Unfortunately, Boll's interviews lack the focus and structure needed to explore these topics in any substantive fashion, jumping quickly from theme to theme instead of pausing long enough to really flesh any of them out. Even worse, Boll mixes clips of students gettings their facts wrong (e.g., claiming Adolf Hitler was Czech) with instances in which they show an impressively sophisticated understanding of history (e.g., explaining the medieval prejudices that led to heavy Jewish involvement in banking). This makes it unclear as to 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, Boll is himself often guilty of sloppy research, such as when he casually refers to Holocaust deniers like "that Irani president or that Catholic bishop" instead of recalling the names Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Richard Williamson, or when he claims that about 50% of the people on Earth don't know about the Holocaust without providing any sources to back up his assertion.
In the end, though, these weaknesses don't take away from the fact that Auschwitz is a powerful film with a provocative and compelling take on its subject. Although Ratatouille admonishes critics to remember that "in the grand scheme of things the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so," I am happy to report that Auschwitz is far from being a piece of junk. After a long string of failures, Uwe Boll has finally made his first good movie.