‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ Review: Peacock Holocaust Drama Leaves an Indelible Mark

In a season post October 7th, as Pro-Palestinian students at Columbia University and beyond escalate their protests with intimidating chants, and the Israeli attack on Gaza has intensified global Antisemitism, it seems to be even harder to critique a boutique limited series like “The Tattooist of Auschwitz.” How can a Holocaust drama be viewed in anything but a positive light? It seems impossible to disconnect the dark romance from this fraught moment where victims and victimizers are engaged in a battle for survival.

Didn’t we learn this lesson already? Perhaps not.

So we crack open the story of WWII Nazi atrocities again. When it comes to pedigree, this six-part limited series has good-as-gold source material. Australian author Heather Morris’s blockbuster bestseller, a novel based on the life of Jewish Australian Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor Lali Sokolov, has an unbeatable 162,000-plus reviews on Amazon. They clock in at a premium 4.6 out of 5 stars. It’s a star in a cottage industry of memoirs and novels set in the camps — like “The Boy in the Blue Pajamas,” “The Midwife of Auschwitz,” “The Librarian of Auschwitz” and “The Boy From Block 66.”

Harvey Keitel in “The Tattooist of Auschwitz.” (Martin Mlaka/Sky UK)

The cast is led by an equally stellar, and largely muted, Harvey Keitel as Lali. Long gone are the days of his raucous performances, or the years when he would pull out his pecker at the drop of a line. The 84-year-old actor, known for playing diminutive tough guys, is more powerful for his restraint as Lali narrates his ultimate sob story. Occasionally, his aging eyes fog over, and the Australian retiree withholds tough truths from Morris, also a character in the series and played by an understated, endlessly empathetic, bewigged Melanie Lynskey.

Told largely in extended flashbacks set in Auschwitz-Birkenau and on a series of brutal death marches, the palette for the past is desaturated, like newspaper left out in the rain. It is, at its core, a romance novel gift-wrapped in misery porn. The young Lali (tastefully embodied by gentle-eyed Jonah Hauer-King), an obedient good son who takes the first train in 1942 to the work camps out of Bratislava to shield the rest of his family — only to later learn the selfless gesture’s futility. He may be the first, but not the last, of his Jewish family to see the inside of a concentration camp and labor under the black smoke created by the mass genocide of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, political agitators and others caught in the Nazi maw.

Into this swirling hellhole, enter fellow prisoner Gita (Anna Prochniak, incandescent even in her darkest hours). She is petite, supple, grounded and proactive in unexpected situations. This love at first sight, a seed grown in the muck, provides a beacon of hope for both Lali and Gita. If they can survive this daily humiliation and horror together, certainly their marriage will be the end of sorrows, halevai, they should live so long.

Jonas Nay and Jonah Hauer-King in “The Tattooist of Auschwitz.” (Martin Mlaka/Sky UK)

As the episodes swim back and forth in time — present pristine light-filled Australia versus grim, muddy, overcast Poland — we witness the cavalcade of cruelty. Random prisoners shot for speaking out — or simply stumbling in the wrong ditch at the wrong time. Female prisoners miraculously deliver an infant, only for the mother to fade away. A homosexual? Emasculated. A truckload of gypsies dispatched to the oven. Terror is the air they breathe — for as long as they are allowed to breathe it.

The relatively even-tempered Lali is a mensch accustomed to being useful — a virtue when surrounded by a loving family, an exploitable vice in the camps. The title’s twist arrives early on when Lali reluctantly accepts the job of tattooist, inking identifying numbers into the skin of new arrivals, a numerical sequence already imprinted on his arm. In so doing, our gentle beloved Lali does the German’s prickly work for them. The ink embedded in the arms of the innocent had a psychological impact greater than the needle’s sting. The recipients, men and women, were dehumanized, reduced to numbers. With those marks, they would never be free of the trauma and shame of their past, should they even survive.

Becoming the tattooist benefits Lali, and trickles down to Gita. That position gives him his own room (where the lovers can have a sliver of privacy), nourishing food and some independence within the camps. Lali remains keenly aware that he serves at the pleasure of his captors. He is enslaved. When the mercurial Nazi SS guard Stefan Baretzki (clean-shaven devil Jonas Nay) takes the tattooist under his wing, they bond like brothers — if those siblings are Cain and Abel. It’s the collaboration that the elder Lali flogs himself with daily in paradisiacal Australia — a complicity that did not entirely end with his escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau as the Russian army circled.

Anna Próchniak in “The Tattooist of Auschwitz.” (Martin Mlaka/Sky UK)

Watching the quality series, episode by episode, is heavy lifting. A shining romance spins at its core, but doesn’t dull the sting of despair. I look forward to a time when we have achieved remembrance of horrors past without the need to repeat them, to flog ourselves, like Lali, over past breaches in unspeakable times. Yet, returning to the cataclysmic present, and the shouts on college campuses, maybe the bitter lessons must still be learned by each new generation. The towering Jewish novelist Cynthia Ozick wrote, in a quote as applicable to television as it is to books, “Reading is an act of resistance, a rebellion against ignorance and apathy.”

“The Tattooist of Auschwitz” premieres Thursday, May 2, on Peacock.

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