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The Tattooist of Auschwitz

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Reviewer

Paul Asay

TV Series Review

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

So wrote Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. And while Lale Sokolov might not embrace Paul’s faith, he might read that verse and know those words to be true. He might know it more than most.

Lale sits across from Heather Morris, a fledgling writer interested in writing about the old man’s memories. He has a story to tell—or so Heather’s heard. A love story, he insists.

But this love story takes place in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazis’  most notorious concentration camp.

Love and Death

In 1942, a young Lale Sokolov is sent to Auschwitz. Lale and others are told that they’re there to work, but the reality becomes clear soon enough: Work is secondary. Their deaths are the priority.

But not every Jewish prisoner is treated the same.

Most, of course, are housed in dormitories unfit even for cattle, given minimal food and made to mindlessly work in the heat and cold until they’re taken away, never to return.

But some are given additional training to do specialized jobs that the Nazis can’t or won’t do: The delicate job of tattooing the prisoners’ numbers on their arms, for instance.

Those people are given (relatively) better quarters; (relatively) more food; (relatively) better care. The only downside is that rank-and-file workers view such people as traitors, perhaps little better than the Nazis themselves. Better to die in Auschwitz, some might say, than to live with such compromises.

Lale, however, discovers a reason to live. He meets a young woman, Gita, as she waits to be tattooed. She notices the color of his eyes. She quips that she wants her numbers in “pink this time.” She suffers, tears in her eyes, as he pricks her with the ink-filled needle, smiling at him as he works.

Love at first sight? Ridiculous. Such things—if they happen at all—happen over tables filled with dinners and drinks, not Nazi forms and ink. And yet (he tells Heather so many decades later) the attraction was unmistakable. And he—they—found reason to survive the nightmares surrounding them, no matter what.

Tortured

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is inspired by the bestselling book of the same name, which in turn was based on the reminisces of Lale Sokolov, as told to Heather Morris.

Does that make this Peacock miniseries a true story? The answer is … maybe. Historians have taken issue with Morris’ novel and some of its alleged factual inaccuracies.

But the miniseries dances around those inaccuracies by turning Lale into a not-so-reliable narrator. Perhaps, at times, Heather (who doesn’t take notes during her conversations with Lale) mishears or misinterprets something. Perhaps Lale’s memory fails him at times. Perhaps at others, he shades his own memories to make a better story, or even to make himself look less culpable. Throughout Lale’s retelling, “ghosts” of sorts lurk in his home, his memories literally haunting him. And one—the ghost of a Nazi guard—questions Lale’s narrative. “It was me that night?” he asks. “I’m not so sure you remember it right.”

But while Lale’s memory might be suspect, the show’s problematic content is impossible to forget.

In the annals of atrocity, what happened in Nazi concentration camps would rank among the most horrific. The Tattooist of Auschwitz makes sure we see those horrors. People are beaten and killed, with the corpses stacked like firewood in carts. Because the Nazis tried to take every shred of dignity they could from their prisoners, Auschwitz inmates are sometimes stripped bare, with the camera eyeing everything. (Corpses are often completely unclothed, as well.) Language can be incredibly foul, extending to the harshest profanities you can imagine.

Lale promises Heather—and, by extension, the viewer—that not all his recollections are horrible. He did, after all, fall in love. “I have good things to tell you as well,” he tells Heather, “And good things take time.”

But just as Lale is haunted by his own memories, this show seeks to haunt those who watch. It’s part of the point. As Heather cringes and cries, we’re supposed to do the same—so that we, presumably, can get even the smallest semblance of what Holocaust survivors had to navigate. But it’s not easy. It’s not fun. And I think even its stated benefits are questionable.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is, perhaps, a little like its titular character. It’s painful. It gets under your skin. And it just might leave a mark.

Episode Reviews

May 2, 2024—S1, E1: “Episode 101”

Lale meets Heather and begins his narrative, which takes us back to Bratislava, Slovakia, in 1942. The country is occupied by Germans, and Jewish countrymen like Lale are forced to wear Stars of David as their rights are slowly chipped away. Soon, Lale and his family are told that every Jewish family is required to send one of its male members to a “work camp” to serve Germany’s war effort. Lale—in an attempt to protect his elderly father and older brother who has a wife and kids—volunteers. And while Lale knows the conditions will be bad, he can’t fathom how bad they’ll be.

The work camp turns out to be Auschwitz. Before he even gets on the cattle car that will take him there, he watches a Nazi smash another would-be passenger in the face. The victim lies in the mud, bleeding, as horrified Jews shuffle past. His first night in camp, he watches a Nazi guard shoot and kill three men, apparently simply because they were using the open latrine. Lale sees a cart full of corpses being wheeled away, and some of his bunkmates are taken as well. Lale spots several other carts covered by tarps—all presumably filled with cadaverous cargo—and a worker tells him that the Nazis “can’t bury the bodies fast enough.”

When Lale gets horrifically sick, a couple of his friends pull him off a cart filled with the dead and dying and whisk him back to the bunkhouse for a secret day of sleep and recovery. Shortly thereafter, Lale takes a job as a tattooist—a post that marks him a traitor to many of his fellow prisoners. (“I was 26,” he explains to Heather. “I wanted to live.”) He tries to do his work humanely, apologizing to those he tattoos. (Someone who sees his lips moving from a distance asks him if he’s praying.) At one point, the Nazis ask him to identify two male corpses left on a killing-room floor. “You are now the only Jew who walked into this place and also walked out,” a Nazi tells him.

Dozens of men are forced to strip off their clothes before receiving their Auschwitz uniforms: We see several bare bums and at least one set of uncovered genitals. Several dead bodies are also naked, and we see everything. A prisoner laments that he may die in Auschwitz without ever having had sex. When that same prisoner asks what he’d have to do to get a very sick Lale out of a day of work, the Nazi invites the prisoner to perform oral sex on him. Before being sent to Auschwitz, Lale’s mother asks if he’s met “someone special” yet. “There were girls,” Lale says, “But no one as special as you.”

A man is hit in the face with a rifle butt, splitting his face open. Nazis leave him, in the rain and mud, either unconscious or dead. Lale is punched in the face. We see several closeups of Lale and others giving tattoos, with ink and blood mingling.

Lale vomits off a rooftop. We see people sit in a latrine as Nazis complain about the smell. Characters say the f-word seven times and the c-word once.

In the present, Lale sees “ghosts” of both former guards and inmates, all of whom seem rather accusatory. When he asks Heather if she’s Jewish, she says “No, I’m Church of England. Sort of.”

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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