In 1944, two Jewish Slovaks, Rudolf Vrba (Peter Ondrejička) and Alfred Wetzler (Noel Czuczor), both of them prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau, hide in some wooden pallets and wait for a moment to escape. Carrying documents that will prove what is really happening in the extermination camp, they manage to make it through the fence and into the forest, an escape that precious few managed. Meanwhile, those who stayed behind, some of whom risked their lives to help Vrba and Wetzler escape, are cruelly punished by the camp guards.
This dramatised account of a true story plays like a grim high-stakes thriller as we root for the two men to make it over the border. Their names may be unfamiliar, but even for those who know about the Auschwitz Protocols – a report to which the pair contributed that has a weighty legacy in Holocaust history – the film is still intensely impactful. Inevitably, it is profoundly upsetting and disturbing.
Nevertheless, Slovak director Peter Bebjack has managed to make a film that relates this chapter of history in a new way, employing inventive cinematic techniques to present the material. For instance, Bebjak and cinematographer Martin Ziaran often film the action with an upside-down camera, thus mimicking the point of view of the protagonists. The colours are all bleached out to a near monochrome palette, soggy and grey as the Polish mud.
Elsewhere, flashbacks and dreams intermingle to keep you always a little off balance. Long takes track slowly through scenes of horror, and a few sequences take place in a darkened room where hundreds of naked corpses are stacked up like lumber. It is particularly upsetting that this last setting is barely noticed by the characters as they go about their business, as if they see this sort of thing every day.
The acting is extraordinary throughout, especially from the two leads, and John Hannah offers a beautifully underplayed cameo as a Red Cross employee who almost can’t believe his ears towards the end of the film.
The Auschwitz Escape is released on 14 May on digital platforms.
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