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MoviesIs ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ based on a true story? The history...

Is ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ based on a true story? The history behind the new Holocaust drama

If you’ve recovered from watching Jonathan Glazer’s singular Holocaust drama Zone of Interest and want to learn more about what happened inside the death camps, Sky Atlantic and Peacock’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz arrives at an opportune moment.

A six-part series landing in early May, it’s adapted from New Zealander Helen Morris’s huge-selling novel and tells the remarkable story of two Jewish prisoners who fell in love at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and the post-war legacy of that relationship. Here’s what you need to know about it.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Photograph: Martin Mlaka / Sky UKJonah Hauer-King as Lali Sokolov in ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’

How accurate is The Tattooist of Auschwitz?

Adapted from Heather Morris’s 2018 novel – 12 million copies sold to date – the series recreates the unique, hellish world of the Nazi death camp, with its sudden violence, dehumanisation, disease, malnutrition, gas chambers and slave labour details. Expect overcrowded bunks, barking Alsatians and endless roll calls in the biting cold of Polish winters. 

Central to it is its real-life lead character, Slovakian-Jewish prisoner Lali Sokolov (played by Jonah Hauer-King as a young man and acting legend Harvey Keitel as an old one). He’s charged with tattooing identity numbers onto the forearms of arriving prisoners. The job brings him into contact with a young Polish-Jewish woman called Gita Furman (Anna Próchniak) and a tender bond begins to form. The unexpected intervention of an SS officer enables that bond to grow into an unlikely, forbidden love affair.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Photograph: Zaffre

That love story is entirely real, and it even survived the war. Lali and Gita both survived the Holocaust and spent the next 60 years together.

There’s an element of autofiction in the series, too. Melanie Lynskey plays Morris as she interviews an elderly Lali in his Melbourne home. Those conversations took place IRL and Lali’s memories formed the basis for the novel. For the series, Jewish historian Naomi Gryn and the Auschwitz Museum were both consulted to ensure the maximum historical accuracy on screen.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Photograph: Martin Mlaka / Sky UKAnna Próchniak as Gita Furman in ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’

What are the inaccuracies in the story?

The meat of the story is true, but some small liberties have been taken with its central characters. ‘What has been fictionalised is where I’ve put Lali and Gita into events where really they weren’t,’ Morris told The Guardian of her book’s use of dramatic license.

As John Boyne, author of another bestselling Holocaust novel, ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’, will testify, depictions of the Holocaust that aren’t handled with strict adherence to historical fact and context will be called out. So it’s been, albeit to a lesser extent, with Morris’s book. The Auschwitz Memorial Museum noted that it ‘cannot be recommended as a valuable position for those who wish to understand the history of the camp’.

That’s not to say that the book and the TV dramatisation don’t come from a place of historical rigour – more that there’s fictional elements in the story. ‘To write the book as a memoir or biography, I would have had to leave out Gita,’ Morris explained in another interview, ‘other than the times she and Lali were together. I wanted to weave their love story into the events, tragedies, and horror that are factually documented from their time in Auschwitz-Birkenau.’

For Harvey Keitel, honouring the memory of the victims and survivors of the Holocaust was a key reason for taking the role. ‘My initial reaction was to bear witness,’ the actor tells Jewish News. ‘It’s our duty to condemn the barbarism and inhumanity inflicted on Jews, Roma and Sinti, political dissidents and any of the communities that were persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust.’

The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Photograph: Martin Mlaka / Sky UKHarvey Keitel as Lali Sokolov

Who is starring in the series?

The series is split across two timelines: the war and Keitel plays Lali Sokolov as a retiree in Melbourne, drawing on his memories of Auschwitz and his survivor’s guilt in a series of conversations with novelist Helen Morris (Yellowjackets’ Melanie Lynskey).

The Little Mermaid’s Jonah Hauer-King plays him as a young man enduring the horror of Auschwitz and falling in love with fellow prisoner Gita (Polish actress Anna Próchniak). Deutschland 83’s Jonas Nay is Stefan Baretzki, the otherwise sadistic SS officer who takes a shine to Lali. 

The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Photograph: SkyJonah Hauer-King as Lali Sokolov and Jonas Nay as SS officer Stefan Baretzki

How many episodes are there?

There are six in total.

Where to watch The Tattooist of Auschwitz

It’s available to watch on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV in the UK, and Peacock in the US on May 2.

What are critics saying about the show?

Harvey Keitel’s performance has drawn praise from all quarters. The Radio Times calls him ‘a standout’, saying: ‘It’s the scenes in which he’s alone, wrapped up in thoughts of Gita or paralysed by the memory of a past horror without warning, in which he’s at his most brilliant and devastating.’

‘I could sit and watch Harvey Keitel all day, there is a whole movie in every facial expression, but he’s not given enough to do here,’ writes the Irish Examiner, complaining that the pacing is ‘too slow’.

Others have zeroed in on the relationship between Lali and his Nazi protector as the strongest element of the story. ‘In the end, it is Lali and Baretzki’s relationship, rather than the syrupy central romance, that proves most compelling,’ notes The Financial Times. ‘For all its period detail and unflinching depiction of the Holocaust’s horrors, The Tattooist of Auschwitz lumbers more than it inspires,’ is RogerEbert.com’s verdict.

As a depiction of the horror of the Holocaust, this is no saccharine Life is Beautiful. Ways The Wrap: ‘A shining romance spins at its core, but doesn’t dull the sting of despair.’ 

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