Peter Bebjak • Director of The Auschwitz Report
“Personally, I believe we are living in times when we need heroic films about people who had an important mission”
- The prolific Slovak filmmaker talks about his most ambitious project yet, which has just premiered domestically and in the USA
The Auschwitz Report [+see also:
interview: Peter Bebjak
film profile], the most ambitious project yet by prolific Slovak filmmaker Peter Bebjak, has just been released on domestic turf as well as in the USA. The Auschwitz Report is the first film adaptation of Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba’s escape from the titular death camp, and the film was the Slovak submission for the Oscars race, in the Best International Feature Film category. Cineuropa talked to the director about his vision and his approach to this singular Holocaust story.
Cineuropa: Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba both wrote a memoir about their experiences. Why did you choose to use Wetzler’s account?
Peter Bebjak: I liked the form he used for his story. It’s not a big story with plot twists, but rather with situations and moments captured by somebody who survived the extermination camp and who is putting his memories on paper. We meet the protagonist when he is being loaded onto railway transports to be hauled to a labour camp. After their arrival, they find out that they have been brought to Auschwitz, and step by step, they uncover the fact that they are in a factory of death. The book then follows scenes of their escape to Žilina, what followed after they wrote their report [the so-called Vrba-Wetzler report, part of the Auschwitz Protocols], and their private lives. We picked the most important moments from the book, but the story was based on information we acquired from books and films, from our visit to Auschwitz, and from talks with historians and lecturers who explained how the camp functioned.
Are there any fictional parts in the film?
Not from the point of view of historical truth. The story is divided into three parts: the first part is the escape, and it takes place in the camp; the second part is crossing the border and arriving in Žilina; and the last part is the persuasion of the Red Cross official. Each part was conceived in a different manner because even in the first stage, we are not solely following the protagonists, Vrba and Wetzler, hiding in the hole, but it is also the story of their fellow prisoners from barracks number 9 and how they had to cope with the fallout from the escape and with the Nazi officer.
Holocaust movies are a genre all of their own. Did you take into consideration how to make The Auschwitz Report different from prior movies, either formally or otherwise?
We didn’t really think about it in that way, and there were several reasons for that. This is the first time that Wetzler and Vrba’s escape has been adapted as a live-action movie. Personally, I believe we are living in times when we need heroic films about people who did not solely risk their lives, but who had an important mission. They knew why they needed to escape: their mission was to bring their testimony to the world, and the world needed to react. The second reason why I did not think about consciously making the film different compared to other Holocaust movies was that I think we need more of these films, since we tend to forget about the past and we like to repeat the same mistakes.
It appears that you wanted to differentiate the film through its cinematography, since DoP Martin Žiaran focuses more on the details on people’s faces, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere.
The approach to how to shoot the story in order to make it different from previous Holocaust movies was not decided on consciously in this way, but rather, it stemmed from the plot. As I mentioned, we had three different parts, and we utilised three different approaches to film expression for each of them, through the camerawork, mise-en-scène and lighting. The closer the protagonists get to Žilina, the more expressive the camera gets. We created our own philosophy or ideology for the camera. We use the hand-held camera once we are with the protagonists, when they are lying in the hole. When they escape and we see them fatigued, the camera’s shaky effect is amplified so that we, as viewers, can psychologically experience what has been going on in their heads. However, then comes the finale, which is done in a single shot – the 13-minute shot with John Hannah, who stars as Warren. We wanted to highlight the power of words, and we can observe how the words in the report are having an effect on Warren.
How did you approach the question of graphic violence and to what extent it would be shown?
What was important for us was to demonstrate that death was present during every single second in the camp. We did not explicitly show the atrocities, even though there is one violent scene, but it was shot in a manner so as not to focus on the details. But without these horrors, even if only hinted at, we wouldn’t be able to understand life in the camp or why they needed to escape.
Gas chambers and ovens are usually depicted in movies about the extermination camps. Why did you decide not to show them?
Because they were not part of the protagonists’ life. Wetzler did not have any contact with the Sonderkommandos. He worked in barracks number 9, where he was a scribe. That’s why we did not show ovens, although their presence is implied. The lighting of the scenes is revealed to be caused by the chimneys, so we did not have a reason to go into the details of ovens or gas chambers. We did not wish to push the arthouse vibe too much, but we liked to work with colour. The nights are orangey, and pulsating and monochromatic colour fills the camp; also, the colour of the Nazi officers’ uniforms and the prisoners’ uniforms are similar, colour-wise. And this unvaried, monochromatic world gets disrupted once the protagonists escape to Žilina.
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.