Another Hole In the Head 2011 Film Festival runs June 2nd through the 16th at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Check out the Festival Genius site for film schedules and tickets.
Directed by Uwe Boll
Fri, June 10th @ 920pm
Mon, June 13th @ 720pm
If nothing else, Uwe Boll means well. The self-acknowledged purpose of his new film Auschwitz is to remind people of the atrocity that occurred in the infamous concentration camp almost seventy years ago. Does the world actually need reminding? Boll says yes as not only have the details faded over time but genocides are still a modern day reality in places like Rwanda and Bosnia. He’s right of course on both counts, but does that mean he’s the best man for the job?
It’s easy to criticize any (and all) of Boll’s films, but that task is made even simpler with a movie that begs to be taken seriously yet has no qualms about showing babies shot in the head, a young boy graphically burning in a furnace, and lengthy scenes of naked men, women, and children choking to death in suspiciously dry showers. Not to mention an extended shot of a bored Nazi guard, played by Boll himself, standing idly by while people slowly and painfully die in the room behind him. Tough to argue against accusations of exploitation when you cast yourself in such a role. So yes, he may mean well, but…
“There is nobody like God who comes to help people.”
Auschwitz opens and closes with a talking head, Boll’s, where he explains his motivations and intentions in both German and English. “I am responsible for this movie,” he says before continuing to talk about ignorance in general and Holocaust deniers in particular. Boll, a German, is speaking globally, but his focus is on the youth of his own home country. This opening gives way to a Q&A he held with German teens on the subject of Auschwitz, Hitler, the Jews, and the idea of genocide. Most of the kids’ replies support Boll’s assertion as their concept of time and space sees WWII positioned sometime between the 1960s and the 16th century. The final third of the film mirrors this opening with more interviews followed by the return of Boll’s mug, but while both sections offer the occasional interesting moment they’re ultimately slight and repetitive in nature.
It’s the thirty-plus minute narrative in the middle that will either win viewers over to Boll’s cause or confirm some people’s most critical views of the man and his talent skill ability to acquire funding.
The dramatized portion begins on a train, its occupants huddled tightly together as they stare between the wooden slats to the world outside. They arrive at Auschwitz and begin to exit the cars, and the film cuts to another group of people in a makeshift locker room preparing for a group shower. They’re instructed to disrobe and leave their belongings behind before being directed into the shower. This plays out in real time as old men, women, and children remove every last layer of clothing and shamble unknowingly towards their doom. To answer your question, no, it’s not shot nearly as sexy as the shower scene in Porky’s. We return to the new arrivals as they’re documented and separated into groups by age, sex, and general frailty. Some are chosen for work details, others are directed towards an ominous building, and babies are simply shot in the head. Why waste ammunition on babies when they could have just as easily been sent to the showers too? No clue, but no one ever accused the Nazis of being all that bright.
We move back and forth between these two groups occasionally stopping to spend time with the SS soldiers and camp commanders conversing about the heavy load of prisoners, guards refusing to shoot infants, and some broken furnaces that are causing havoc with the schedule. The camp counselors in Meatballs and Wet Hot American Summer had it easy by comparison. This scene, along with the one that sees Boll watching nonchalantly over the death shower, succeeds in showing the mundane attitude held by those who oversaw things. It was little more than an assembly line, and while they feared an eventual attack by the Russians their bigger concerns were more about the trials and tribulations of running a camp. The first group of Jews is gassed in graphic, gasp-filled detail, and then we get to see the same thing play out with a second group of victims. They’re different people, all nameless and without more than a line or two of spoken dialogue, but it’s basically the same scene. They undress, they shuffle into the shower, and they choke and die.
Why have two-thirds of the narrative focus so much on shower scenes? Clearly Boll wants viewers to know that the Jews value cleanliness above all else, but it also serves to lessen the dramatic effect the second time through. Any emotional power evident the first go round already feels repetitive on the second. Surely he doesn’t think the showers were the only evil act perpetrated in these camps, but it’s still the only one he devotes real time to. Well, aside from a lengthy scene showing a young, dead, naked boy slid into a furnace and burned to ashes. Boll’s camera follows his body in and lingers as the flames rise up and begin to blacken the child’s skin, and as is his intention with this entire narrative it looks and feels incredibly real.
Boll doesn’t pretend his film is entertaining, and in fact he claims that lack of entertainment value is actually intended. (It’s unclear if this claim is retroactive.) Films like Schindler’s List he insists are false entertainments that avoid the cold reality of history. And while it isn’t as revolutionary as he believes the man does have a point. Watching Boll’s film you can’t help but want for a hero to stand up and fight or for someone to do something, anything, but it never happens. Instead it’s just the Jews being quietly and systematically slaughtered. The desire for heroic action is a natural response built on common sense, but it’s also due to conditioning from Hollywood. Boll wants viewers to realize that films are not reality. Aside from his of course.
The problems here are clearly numerous, but they go beyond the things we see onscreen to include the things we don’t. The Jews have no names or dialogue and instead move through the film like cattle at a slaughterhouse. That’s intentional, but there’s no getting around the fact that this is still a movie (kind of) and for a viewer to truly feel and react they need some sort of attachment. There’s none to be found here. Also missing? Roughly one quarter of the subtitles. In both the interview and narrative segments whole stretches of dialogue passes by without translation. A rambling minute of German reflection does not equal one line of English text.
Reminding modern day audiences about the atrocities committed against such large numbers of people is a noble effort, but the question asked above is an important one. Is Boll the best director for the job? Judging solely by Auschwitz the answer is probably not… but on the other hand, who else would step up to the challenge?
The Upside: The film’s intentions are good; solid practical effects work for dead child; it’s only 68 minutes long
The Downside: Interview segments are shoddily edited and incompetently subtitled; narrative segment squanders drama of shower through repetition and is equally terrible with the subtitles
Check out all of our Another Hole In the Head Film Fest coverage here.