The trouble with unimaginable horror is precisely that: It cannot be imagined. For Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba, two Slovakian Jews who escaped from Auschwitz in 1944 to bring evidence of the systematic genocide within the camp, the hardest part of issuing The Vrba-Wetzler Report was simply being believed. Director Peter Bebjak’s “The Auschwitz Report,” Slovakia’s official entry to the international feature category in last year’s Academy Awards, measures the immense gulf between the authors’ harrowing experiences and a reception that was far more muted and perplexed than they anticipated. The unrelenting brutality of the film’s scenes at Auschwitz are a reminder that people sometimes need to be shaken from their complacent assumptions and realize the atrocities that human beings are capable of committing against other human beings.
Bebjak wants to ensure that viewers never forget what happened either, and so his monochromatic images, drained of color and hope, are designed to sear the conscience. The fact that Wetzler and Vrba — presented more familiarly here as Freddy (Noel Czuczor) and Valer (Peter Ondrejicka), respectively — had trouble being believed seems like the headline, at least in separating “The Auschwitz Report” from other films about the Holocaust. But Bebjak’s curious narrative strategy of devoting two-thirds of the film to Freddy and Valer’s escape, along with the fates of other men in their barrack, pays off in the one-scene wonder that brings it to a staggering close.
The early scenes hit the hardest, depicting the day-to-day cruelty and slaughter at Auschwitz-Birkenau with a steady, unblinking gaze. Bebjak immediately registers the consequences visited on those who attempt to escape, but he also seeks to establish a contrast between the shock of the average viewer and the reaction of a longtime prisoner numbed by terror. When Freddy walks into a barrack with a grisly tableaux of bodies stacked to the ceiling, his mind focuses on the culling of information rather than the obscenity of Nazi genocide. He and his fellow “scribe” will risk their lives in an urgent quest to bring the world’s attention to Auschwitz, but they’ve long since conditioned themselves for survival.
Though interspersed with flashbacks and dream sequences from Freddy’s perspective, “The Auschwitz Report” chronicles a stretch of time starting on April 7, 1944, when Freddy and Valer are tucked away under a stack of wooden pallets, waiting for the right moment to flee the camp. In the meantime, their comrades in the ninth barrack are punished for their disappearance, forced to spend days and nights standing in the cold — a routine broken by punitive acts of violence by a Nazi officer. As a unit, they have committed to do everything possible, including sacrificing their lives, to make sure the Allies know the truth about the camps and bomb them into oblivion. Bebjak draws this section of the film out much longer than expected, but it does underline the spirit of camaraderie and shared responsibility between the prisoners, as well as the grinding difficulty of each step toward justice.
When the two eyewitnesses finally find themselves in front of a British bureaucrat for the Red Cross — played in a beautiful turn by John Hannah, an actor more recognized for comedies like “Four Weddings and a Funeral” — Bebjak and DP Martin Ziaran keep the camera rolling and give the performers room to operate. It seems absurd, based on what we’ve just seen, that Freddy and Valer’s story could ever be questioned or minimized. But the deviation from official humanitarian accounts is so extreme that belief, for a skeptic like Hannah’s character, defies all reason. The film is a powerful reminder never to underestimate the historical evils that have been, and could again be, unleashed.
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