Reviewed by: Brett Willis
I was twelve when I first learned of the Nazi Death Camps by reading the account of an Auschwitz survivor, and I’ve never looked at the world in quite the same way since. This film is the dramatized story of another survivor, Greek-Jewish Olympic boxer Salomo Arouch, and was filmed on location at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
Salomo (Willem Dafoe) is deported along with his family, his girlfriend and all other Jews from his city. The film expects the viewer to already know some of the basics—that among those sent to the camps, Jews and some other groups were marked for certain death, with the strongest saved for temporary slave labor and the rest (including all children under 12) killed immediately by poison gas in a false shower room.
Due to Salomo’s special assignment as a boxer in the SS officers’ nightclub, this film shows in ridiculous juxtaposition the various kinds of entertainment put on there by prisoners (a Gypsy band and magic act, trained dogs, even a burlesque dancer who turns out to be a male in crossdress) while just outside, incoming prisoners are being exterminated by the trainload. We also see groups of prisoners, and individuals, preying on others in a desperate attempt to survive. As long as Salomo wins his boxing matches (and his sponsoring officer wins the bets placed on those matches), he’s rewarded with extra food which he can share with his family. If he loses, he’ll be gassed.
There is no noticeable foul language in English (I don’t know about the untranslated foreign language dialog) and no sexual content other than the fake stripper. But the scenes of “selection”, murder, and interrogation and torture of prisoners are adult fare; and within those scenes are some flashes of nudity, although most of it is handled with discreet camera angles. All the activity surrounding the gassing and cremation of prisoners is shown—deceiving those to be “disinfected”, pouring the poison, sorting the belongings (clothing, toys, artificial limbs) of the murdered.
This film has essentially no Christian (or Jewish) moral content, and is not particularly uplifting even at the end; any “Triumph” consists of a few prisoners surviving and going on with life after the war. Its only value is as an historical docudrama, and on this subject I still prefer nondramatized written accounts plus real photos and film of the camps. This movie tries to do something historically worthwhile, but in my opinion it never quite succeeds.
Year of Release—1989