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Film review: The Auschwitz Escape, and Son of the South

by
11 June 2021

Two new films reflect on pernicious systems, says Stephen Brown

Freddy (Noel Czuczor) and Valér (Peter Ondrejička) in The Auschwitz Escape

Freddy (Noel Czuczor) and Valér (Peter Ondrejička) in The Auschwitz Escape

PETER BEBJAK’s film The Auschwitz Escape (Cert. 15) is adapted from Alfréd Wetzler’s novel What Dante Did Not See, which is a fictionalised account of Wetzler’s flight to safety with a fellow Slovakian, Rudolf Vrba, in 1944.

The audience is immediately plunged into the unbearable cruelty endured by inmates of the camp. They were not all Jewish. Among others, there is Hersek (Jacek Beler), a Franciscan friar and a thinly veiled fictionalisation of Fr Maximilian Kolbe, who sacrificed himself to save another prisoner. He performs a similar function to the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List. Individualised like her, Hersek represents innocence, a re-humanising of the sheer mass of anonymous victims known only by the number that the guards assign them.

When Freddy (Noel Czuczor) and Valér (Peter Ondrejička) escape, the rest of Barrack Number 9 is penalised. The Commandant orders them to stand indefinitely to attention in the cold until someone admits assisting the break-out. The prisoners remain quietly defiant.

Kaduk (Lars Rudolph), an SS guard, utterly devastated by having just lost a son on the Eastern Front, takes it out on the Franciscan. “Ten times I thought about killing you last night . . . because you helped someone back on his feet, passing around the bread of life.” In desperation, he threatens the holy man with daily executions. The exchange, exemplifying 2 Corinthians 12.10, reveals the fragility of a brutal persecutor and the strength of apparent weakness.

The scenes in the camp pack the most power in the whole feature, whereas the men’s escape follows the usual narrative pattern — a suspenseful mixture of setbacks and the kindness of strangers. This leads to the finale, which we probably already know from advance publicity, if not the history books.

Freddy and Valér must convince Warren (John Hannah), the Red Cross official, of the atrocities occurring in Auschwitz. The institution’s passivity and naïvety has allowed evil to prosper. It has sent 400,000 parcels of humanitarian aid to the camps, accepting Nazi assurances that they have been delivered. None has.

The Red Cross and governments supporting its efforts have preferred to ignore or be cautious about Holocaust “rumours”. The documentation that Freddy and Valér produce leaves the Allies no alternative but to believe them. Henceforth, such barbarity won’t recur. “Never again”? Don’t be too sure. Witness the babble of provocative voices —Trump, Marine Le Pen, et al. — accompanying the film’s end credits.

Wetzler’s novel contrasts Dante’s Inferno, in which hell is deserved punishment, with the unmerited treatment of the Nazis’ prisoners. The poet concentrates on individual malfeasance while this film considers the sociology of evil. Vicious group behaviour has its own dynamic, sweeping up whole populations in the process.

The Auschwitz Escape posits an eschatological calamity. Is any place left for God? It begins with a prisoner dying slowly at the end of a rope as prisoners are forced to watch. Jürgen Moltmann (The Crucified God), cites a similar incident in Elie Wiesel’s Night. An onlooker cries “Where is God?” to which comes the answer “He is hanging here on this gallows.” In Bebjak’s film, hope is never entirely abandoned by those who enter Auschwitz, and suffering along with God carries within it the seeds of resurrection.

On DVD and various digital platforms

 

“YOU go along to get along.” Shades of Emily Dickinson pervade Son of the South (Cert. 15). Lucas Till plays Bob Zellner, a high-achieving white student at a Methodist college, who gets caught up in the United States’ Civil Rights Movement. Less than 60 years ago, racism was so pervasive that it was usually considered, at least in the deep South, the God-given order. The film concentrates on Zellner’s early years — he is still politically active today — as an organiser of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Son of a liberal-minded Alabama minister whose own father is a Klansman, the young Zellner is challenged to take sides when he meets a black activist, the Revd Ralph Abernathy (played by Cedric the Entertainer). Maybe there is a better way, Zellner suggests, than campaigning. “Like doing nothing?” comes the retort. From thereon, we know that he, a white man, must take up the cause.

Lucas Till as Bob Zellner in a scene from Son of the South

His moment of commitment should be one for audiences to rejoice over, but, in dramatic terms, it needs more build-up. We see the odds that he faces with friends and relations, let alone white supremacists; nothing, however, reveals his inner struggles to overcome life-threatening hatred. His Christian background seems to play a part. ”What would Jesus have done in my place?” he rhetorically asks his sceptical fiancée.

The rest of the film plays like a documentary about the freedom rides, lynch mobs, racist politicians, and police brutality. Perhaps this is necessary to acquaint younger viewers with the sacrificial part that churches played in bringing about enfranchisement of black citizens. Even so, Son of the South could show more clearly what Southern whites feared.

The nearest that it comes to this is when Zellner’s grandfather (Brian Dennehy) makes a speech so racist that it verges on parody. It is not the blacks’ (not the word he uses) fault for being backward, he asserts, but they are taken in by Communist propaganda. The corollary is that they can be tortured and killed for their own good so that they keep in place. Another character, just as ignorant, asks Zellner: “Are you really a Communist? Say something in Communist for me.”

Son of the South is not exactly a subtle exposé of darkened minds. In the Heat of the Night (1967), for example, helped audiences to learn how hearts could be won over, whereas this film offers only the way of non-violent resistance. Certainly, this is how Gandhi succeeded. On its own, however, this leaves erstwhile oppressors defeated rather than converted.

Spiritually, the greater challenge is purifying the souls of good, God-fearing people oblivious of the institutional racism inherent in the social arrangements that they support. Zellner went on to create genuine dialogues through Faith and Politics Congresses with people holding conflicting views. It is a pity that we see no hint of this in the film.


On various digital platforms.

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