Heinrich Himmler redefines Nazism with racial ideology and with the elite SS soldiers, Himmler was supposed to clear the way for his racially superior people in Europe. With the Nuremberg Laws passed in 1935, the Nazis made their anti-Semitic ideology part of German law.
Now there was, among other things, a ban on marriage and sexual intercourse between non-Jewish and Jewish Germans. In November 1938, 7,000 Jewish businesses and homes were vandalized and 91 people were killed in what became known as Kristallnacht. Afterward, 26,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps where the Nazis were to break them down and give them numbers instead of names.
During the campaigns in Poland and the Soviet Union, the task of the SS and their Einsatzgruppe was to carry out a systematic massacre of unwanted people, including Jews. Although around two million Jews were killed by gunfire, this was stressful for soldiers and ineffective.
With an estimate of between 10 and 11 million Jews in Europe, copies of the Dachau prison camp were to be built throughout Europe. The largest of these was Auschwitz. Jews were now told to relocate but came to camps covered by live barbed wire, armed guards, and aggressive guard dogs. The strong were told they should work while the others were told they should be de-lice. The reality was liquidation. Other unfortunates were subjected to medical experiments. It is estimated that around 4 million Jews were gassed in concentration camps.
Representation of Auschwitz in Films
Finding the quality in the confusing quantity can be challenging. The cinematic rendition of Auschwitz is extensive, ranging from the respected Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog, 1956) via independent Central European film gems to lavish American productions. There are always new documentaries like The Accountant of Auschwitz (The Accountant in Auschwitz, 2018), but here we will stick to feature films among the Holocaust Movies Based on Auschwitz.
Mythical The Day the Clown Cried (1972) by and with comedian Jerry Lewis is an example of the myriad of titles. It was one of the early ones made for a wide audience long before the Holocaust was widely known and discussed, but where the main character was sensationally a circus clown in Auschwitz. While financial and rights issues led to the controversial film never being released, the combination of humor and the Holocaust has been repeated, for example with Adam Resurrected (2008) and Resistance (2020).
Amen (The Final Solution, 2002) about the development of Zyklon-B or the Slovak the Auschwitz Report (2021) about two prisoners escaping from the death camp has accessibility as its major problem. Other films such as The Guard of Auschwitz (2018), the first in a sort of trilogy about Auschwitz from British Terry Lee Coker that includes The Angel of Auschwitz (2019) and The Escape from Auschwitz (2020), are readily available. But these are low-budget films with cheap, simple aesthetics as well as low-level storytelling and acting performances. Other titles that must also be avoided are The Last Train To Auschwitz (2006), The Huntress of Auschwitz (2022), and German Uwe Bolls’ highly speculative Auschwitz (2011).
Themes and narrative forms vary from classic hero stories to stories from a child’s point of view. Prisoners’ lives are spared due to their important function or they are given special assignments such as in Sonderkommando or to entertain SS soldiers. Paradoxical entertainment and sporting events in Auschwitz may sound distasteful, but this was not unusual as several films portray.
The aftermath of Auschwitz is also a cinematic theme that can be seen in The Reader (2008), Phoenix (2014), or Denial (2016) about the Holocaust denial controversy. Auschwitz is never finished and new productions are constantly coming out such as The Survivor (2021), Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest (2023) as well as the upcoming TV series based on the bestseller “The Tattooist from Auschwitz”.
So here we have come up with some of the best titles on Auschwitz that have a good storyline and soulful acting.
1. The Boxer and Death (1963)
Polish Jew Tadeusz Pietrzykowski was to become known as the boxing master from Auschwitz and his achievements were first filmed by Peter Solan, one of the most prominent directors in the new Czechoslovak film wave of the 1960s, as The Boxer and Death (1963). And we can also say that this is one of the earliest and best Holocaust Movies Based on Auschwitz.
Tadeusz Pietrzykowski came from a boxing background in Warsaw and was arrested after trying to reach France to link up with the Polish forces. Together with 700 political prisoners, he arrived at Auschwitz in 1940 during the camp’s early phase.
Gradually his body decayed, but he was still nimble and quick. He was to fight over 40 matches in the camp and his story was later penned by Polish Józef Hen in the book “Boxing in death” which is the basis for the film’s script. Pietrzykowski was given special privileges such as less hard work and extra food rations and this helped him through inhuman conditions. As a symbolic function, he gave the other prisoners a glimmer of hope and resistance to the inhumane camp system.
Camp Commandant Kraft (Manfred Krug) holds an appeal about the rules of camp life after nine prisoners have tried to escape. There are only two ways to achieve freedom, he says. Through the chimney or through hard work. Those who have tried to escape have chosen the first option and now they are to be liquidated.
One of the prisoners, Jan Kominek (Štefan Kvietik), avoids the commander’s reprimanding blows and the keen boxer sees opportunities in the prisoner. Kraft wants to use him for sparring as his plan is to return to his boxing career after the war. But after only two rounds in the ring, Jan is knocked out and the commander’s assistant Willie is ordered to fatten him up four kilos in three days. Jan gets lighter tasks, trains stronger every day, and devises a strategy together with the prisoner Venžlak, who has trained others in a boxing club in Warsaw.
The camp life is not rendered as destructively as we know it from other Auschwitz films as it mainly depicts the camp’s early beginnings. The Boxer and Death present a convincing and believable concentration camp with shabby barracks that undeniably look real, but it is never mentioned which camp they are in. In reality, it was filmed in a former labor camp near Nováky, Hungary.
In line with the Soviet post-war idea that the Holocaust victims in Nazi-occupied Soviet territory were ordinary citizens and not Jews, the prisoners in the camp are not presented as Jews. The prisoners must speak German to their German guards, but among themselves, they speak their own mother tongue. The film’s tone is serious, and humorous undertones are absent. However, the presentation is gentle and not graphic, but with a harsh psychological tone, filmed in poetic black and white. The Boxer and Death is particularly well made, have good progress and there is uncertainty in how the story continues and will end.
Locked in a hopeless situation, Jan must make a bitter compromise to adapt and survive the Nazi sadistic game. The story offers several paradoxes. Jan should be fattened up while others starve and should he fight to win or lose on purpose to avoid further sanctions?
Friction develops between Jan and the other prisoners with increased hatred due to his new privileges, while paradoxically a kind of mutual respect and friendship develops between Jan and Kraft, even though they are strong opposites to each other. A friendly tone is also developed between Willie and Jan where he bets money on the fights against other officers following tips from Jan. A terrorizing psychological game is played out between the management and the prisoners where Kraft arbitrarily shoots a prisoner to keep them on their toes and where his sadistic deputy commander kills with desire.
The Boxer and Death can be a challenge to track down in physical format, although in a newly remastered version it was released as part of a collection of films from the Slovak Film Institute on Blu-ray. Fortunately, apparently, this version has also found its way to YouTube.
For those with further interest, it can be mentioned that in 2012 Polish Marta Bogacka renewed the focus on Pietrzykowski in the book “The Auschwitz Boxer” and more recently Pietrzykowski’s daughter Eleonora Szafran’s book “Mistrz” appeared, which coincided with the Polish film adaptation The Champion of Auschwitz ( Mistrz, 2020 ). American Triumph of the Spirit (Win or Die, 1989) with Willem Dafoe in the lead role is on the other hand inspired by the true story of the Greek boxer Salamo Barouch who sat with his Jewish family in the death camp Auschwitz. His boxing talent was also used as entertainment for the Germans.
2. Holocaust (1978)
This is an American family chronicle that follows a Jewish family in 1930s Germany and further through the war years. This was the first major drama that portrayed the Holocaust and Auschwitz to a large audience.
With the so-called Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt 1963-1965, the German judiciary settled with 22 people who had served in Auschwitz-Birkenau. This was the most comprehensive and probably the most important process in connection with the court settlement in Germany after the war and the trial was unusually broad and detailed and covered by the leading German newspapers. This is how the theme of the Holocaust and Auschwitz gained prominence in the German public for the first time.
Over a decade, and almost a year after 120 million Americans had seen it, the NBC-produced miniseries became Holocaust (1978) shown four nights in a row to 20 million TV viewers in West Germany. The series was to seriously raise awareness of the Holocaust for the German people, become the major topic of conversation in the media and in the workplace, and the word was segmented into the German language. In many other countries, the series was first rejected, then re-evaluated, and finally shown with subsequent debates.
Behind the series stood the Jewish director Herbert Brodkin and screenwriter Gerald Green. Through four episodes and eight hours, they tell the fictional story of the Jewish Weiss family, the German Helms family, and a host of other figures on either side of extinction. It begins cautiously with the escalation of the war and follows the characters through the ever-escalating extermination of the Jews. It begins in Berlin in 1935 with the wedding of German Inga Helms (Meryl Streep) and Jewish Karl Weiss (James Woods). Inga’s Christian father, who wears the emblem of the Nazi Party, points out the rumors that mixed marriages will soon be banned.
On the opposite side, the assimilated Jew Josef Weiss is a wealthy and respected general practitioner with an important role in society. His patient Erik Dorf (Michael Moriarty) is a desperately unemployed lawyer who seeks out Heydrich (David Warner) to apply for a job. He rises in ranks and is quickly appointed Lieutenant in the security service.
The constant Nazi discrimination makes the Weiss family consider leaving the country, but after Krystallnatten it is too late. Karl is arrested and sent to Buchenwald while Inga is desperately fighting to get him out of there. Josef Weiss is deported with a large number of the German Jewish population to Warsaw, where he joins the Jewish Council. His second son Rudi escapes and eventually fights with partisans in Ukraine. For his resourcefulness in dealing with the Jewish question, Dorf rises in ranks and is given a central role in the Nazi execution squads in Central Europe.
Each episode is the size of a lavish feature film and is both impressive and massive in scope. There are many filming locations, the scenography is elaborate and, in addition, the number of actors is high. This compressed narrative of the holocaust weaves our characters into the great historical events; Kristallnacht, the Buchenwald and Theresienstadt prison camps, the massacre in the Babij Jar ravine, the Einsatzgruppen’s mass murder on the Eastern Front as well as the uprising in Warsaw and the escape from Sobibor.
These key episodes in the holocaust are viewed from both the Jewish and German sides. Real figures such as Heydrich and Eichman figure as themselves, but it is suggested that Erik Dorf is based on Rudolf Hermann Brandt who had an administrative role in the SS leadership and a central role in the Final Solution.
When a courier arrives at the ghetto in Warsaw, the Jewish Council is told how the Jews in Europe are about to be liquidated. At the same time, small effective coal poisoning is being experimented with on trucks before the more permanent solution Auschwitz is developed. Following the deportation from the Warsaw ghetto, the viewer will follow Dorf on a detailed tour of the Auschwitz effective facility, filmed in the real-life Mauthausen concentration camp. Dorf’s acting is cold and emotionless. The rest of the acting is evenly above average but excels in certain leading roles.
It is the form of soap opera that is used to tell ordinary people the way to power and how they are affected by the system and the Jewish history of suffering. It also cautiously includes the liquidation of the mentally ill. With the use of unadulterated archival images from the horrors of war, historical authenticity is emphasized. Time coloring is particularly good and believable. It is filmed with main close-ups adapted for the TV screen, but also with some great overview shots that show its massive size.
The characters are allowed to unfold at a painstaking pace that scrutinizes all aspects. It has a serious tone, but is not graphic and can probably feel somewhat toned down compared to later Holocaust-centered productions.
3. Playing for Time (1980)
Shortly after the Holocaust miniseries, an American television film about experiences in Auschwitz was told from the female perspective, which also created controversy. This is truly a masterpiece and one of the best holocaust films based on Auschwitz ever made.
In the memoir “Gallows for the Women’s Orchestra” from 1976, Fania Fenelon Goldstein writes about her experiences during the Second World War. She was a French musician and singer who worked with the resistance movement but was arrested and imprisoned. In January 1944, she was sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where the camp commandant had created a women’s orchestra consisting of a privileged group selected from among the camp’s prisoners. Most of those who were part of the orchestra survived the war.
The Jewish musician Fania Fenelon is placed in a cattle wagon and sent on an unbearable train ride with other Jews to Auschwitz. Here their hair is cut, they are deprived of all belongings, get a tattoo with a number of numbers, and are placed in narrow barracks and barracks. When one of the guards asks if there is anyone who can sing Madame Butterfly, Fenelon reports and thus becomes part of a female orchestra that will reassure fellow prisoners who are marched into the deadly gas chambers. At the same time, they will act and act as entertainment for the camp management, including Dr. Mengele and Heinrich Himmler.
Fenlon survived Auschwitz and later wrote a memoir about the events. This was filmed as Playing for Time (In the shadow of death, 1980) by CBS-TV and was praised in its time. It is a bleak and depressing tale of women trying to survive in a dirty and inhumane place, but surviving day by day with unity and gallows humor. Those who were once loved are now greatly hated. It is about life and death and it is tried to be reproduced as realistically as possible. The film uses archival material and clips of real war images to strengthen seriousness and intensity, but at the same time, this breaks with the fictional universe it has built up.
Playing for Time is very interesting where it talks about experiences in Auschwitz from the female perspective. Compared to stories angled from men in similar positions, women have to resort to different means to survive and they are never shown any mercy. The film impresses as TV production and relies heavily on a masterful performance by Vanessa Redgrave.
Jewish groups, however, protested strongly against her in the lead role as Fenelon when Redgrave had publicly given his support to the PLO, the Palestinian liberation organization, which fights for the existence of Israel. Fenelon himself was strongly opposed to this casting choice and criticized the film publicly. To top it all off, there were strong protests against Fenelon’s memoirs from other survivors who thought the orchestra’s members were being misrepresented, including Anita Lasker.
4. Sophie’s Choice (1982)
Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Styron’s fictional story “Sophie’s Choice” was published in 1979 at a time of renewed awareness of the Holocaust. The film adaptation is still very strong today in the cinematic rendition of Auschwitz and the Holocaust.
The author was, among other things, inspired by the book “Five Chimneys” from 1946, which was Hungarian Holocaust survivor Olga Lengye’s detailed memoirs from Auschwitz. Styron also met survivors from Poland, visited Auschwitz, and drew on Hannah Arendt’s writings. The book’s Polish Sophie became a symbolic martyr for all non-Jewish victims and it was a proven choice on Styron’s part so that the story would not become too banal.
At the same time, he received criticism for making the holocaust something general that did not affect only Jews. Alan J. Pakula bought the rights to the book and wrote the screenplay. He then served as both producer and director while Auschwitz survivor Kitty Hart acted as a consultant. Pakula wanted to use unknown actors to let the story be focused and the original wish for Sophie was Liv Ullmann.
1947, the aspiring writer Stingo (Peter MacNicol) moves to New York and becomes a neighbor of the couple Sophie (Meryl Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline) who have a loving but turbulent relationship. Polish Sophie has a number tattoo and constantly comes with drips from her background and experiences during the war. In the United States, she met the bubbling albeit unstable Jew Nathan, who is obsessed with the Holocaust. The three become best friends and Stingo gains Sophie’s trust and hears her story from Auschwitz.
The aspiring writer Stingo is the film’s narrator, while Sophie’s experiences are the film’s central story and theme. It is about a tragic heroine who is marked both physically and psychologically and who is haunted by her past and where hidden secrets are gradually revealed. Liberation and a new hope mark the pleasant and jovial beginning. We are introduced to the holocaust as the audience would have experienced it when Sophie’s Choice (1982) premiered. It is an American approach to the holocaust wrapped in a gentler way than contemporary European film narratives. The film’s central and shocking scene is how she had to make her fateful choice and which has since remained its own popular cultural term.
About halfway through, the film shifts back to 1938 and portrays how the situation unfolded with the Polish Jewish problem. Sophie is sent to Auschwitz where, due to her language skills, she gets a job as a secretary to camp commandant Rudolf Höss. Streep spent three months learning Polish for the film, and much of the dialogue takes place in German.
The scenes in Auschwitz are not graphic but have an unpleasant and grim tone. Pakula tried to set the recording in Auschwitz, but camp scenes were shot in Zagreb, Yugoslavia due to unrest in Poland. At the same time, the film has a difficult sub-story about a paranoid schizophrenic who blames Sofie for having survived while many millions of Jews died during the war years.
Sophie’s Choice brought further attention to the holocaust but was also problematic as the story was basically pure fiction. In conclusion, the film points out that Rudolf Höss was a commandant at Auschwitz, while the rest of the film is fiction and has no roots in reality. Sophie’s Choice was nominated for five Oscars and Streep won for best actress.
5. Life is beautiful (1997)
In 1938, before the outbreak of World War II, Benito Mussolini’s regime passed racial laws with several prohibitions against the Jews. When Italy was later occupied by the German Nazi regime, about 7,000 of the country’s Jews were deported to death camps. Without any doubt it comes to list of the best holocaust movies based on Auschwitz, otherwise our list won’t be complete.
One of these was Rubino Romeo Salmoni, who with black humor later wrote memoirs about his experiences in Auschwitz in the book “In the End, I Beat Hitler”. Italian actor and director Roberto Benigni had recently refused to star in the untraditional French comedy Train de vie (The Train of Life, 1998) about Jews on the run. Instead, he used Salmoni’s book as a starting point, together with stories told by his father who lived in Bergen-Belsen and made the very untraditional, but not different fable La vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful, 1997). In addition, he was to play the lead role of the character Guido and not least direct the film himself. Auschwitz is not mentioned in the film, but the story has roots in the camp.
The year is 1939 and Jewish Guido arrives in the big city of Tuscany where he meets the woman in his life. Dora, on the other hand, will soon get married, but Guido does not give up and continues his courtship. Eventually, he wins her heart and they have a son Joshua. The country’s political situation changed and the Jews are exposed to more difficult conditions.
Finally, Guido and Joshua are sent by train to a concentration camp with Dora in tow. To give his son hope in the camp’s relentless environment, Guido begins to tell him that they are in a big game. It’s about getting points to win a big prize, but if he cries, complains, or shouts at his mother he will lose points.
Roberto Benigni was Italy’s great comedian and with slapstick and mimicry he took up the legacy of Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin. Here he directs himself as the imaginative and fast-talking Guido who speaks in breath and breath. Guido ends up in the most remarkable situations and much of the film is about how Guido playfully and casually gets out of these predicaments.
The first part of Life is Beautiful is pure comedy, but at the same time refers to the new racial laws with consequent Jewishness. The second part shows the deportation and the concentration camp, but Guido’s good humor apparently continues even when he has to lie to his son about children and the elderly being sent to the gas chambers’ showers.
There is a very thin line between light comedy and the ugly theme of the Holocaust, but with the character Guido’s constant evasive maneuver, Life is Wonderful manages to balance itself out of the predicament. The Nazis in the film are made harmless and pushed into the background, they are not the ones. It’s about family, hope, and survival.
The filmmakers had to be very careful about mixing comedy and the serious subject of the Holocaust. Together with co-screenwriter Vincenzo Cerami, Benigni had received authentic testimonies from survivors and they consulted Holocaust survivors to find out if it was okay to make the film. The goal sanctifies the medium, humor is used to gain attention and to enlighten, and thus it succeeds as one of the few Holocaust feel-good films.
As a parallel, one must also mention the Czechoslovakian The Liar Jakob (1974) about a man who lies about his radio receiving messages about the Allied advance in order to ignite hope in a Jewish ghetto in Poland. The new recording of Jakob the Liar (1999) with Robin Williams did not succeed as successfully in combining this delicate nuance between the Holocaust and comedy. Life is Wonderful became not only an artistic success but also one of the greatest successes of a foreign language film ever. It received the jury’s grand prize at Cannes and won, among other things, an Oscar for best foreign language film.
6. Schindler’s List (1993)
One of the greatest film productions about World War II and one of the best Holocaust Movies based on Auschwitz is undoubtedly Steven Spielberg’s heroic portrayal of Schindler’s List (1993).
This is the story of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust and the 1,200 who were saved by Oscar Schindler. One of the really great films from the 1990s started when author Thomas Keneally accidentally ended up in the shop of Jewish Poldek Pfefferberg and was convinced to write the story that was later published as “Schindler’s Ark” in 1982.
All of the research work and interviews were later collected in Searching for Schindler: A Memoir. Pfefferberg knew the mother of Steven Spielberg and was thus able to promote the project in his direction. Spielberg, who is himself Jewish, was not ready to make a Holocaust film and Roman Polanski was offered the direction. Due to Polanski’s experiences in the Krakow ghetto, the project became too personal and he declined. Martin Scorsese was also intended for the project at the same time as Steven Spielberg was to make it Cape Fear (1991). It ended with the two switching projects and the rest is film history.
Steve Zaillian’s screenplay was based on Keneally’s documentary, a book that paradoxically won the Booker’s Prize for fiction. While Spielberg talked to surviving Jews in Poland and did an extensive amount of advance work, producer Branko Lustig had a prisoner number from Auschwitz tattooed on his arm. Historical accuracy was sought and filmed in the real factory, where the ghetto was located, and in the building where Schindler lived. The filmmakers had a standing offer to record scenes in Auschwitz but refused as it would not have been appropriate for those who lost their lives there. One of the female actors was born in a Czechoslovak concentration camp.
The self-centered Oscar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a member of the Nazi Party and in 1939 builds a factory in Krakow that supplies material to the German army. At the same time that Schindler witnesses the Nazis’ brutal and systematic hunt for Jews, his humanitarian values awaken. He decides to save the lives of as many of his Jewish forced laborers as possible. Realizing that he is the only possible savior of the Jews, Schindler makes a list of his employees and bribes the Nazis so that they will not be deported to extermination camps.
It is a thought-provoking film daringly angled from a German character. It is about how a Nazi member and a war profiteer transform himself to save his Jewish workers, but without any final conclusion. Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński filmed its ugly images in black-and-white due to its Holocaust theme and because the Nazis’ own footage was filmed without color.
It is mainly shot in English as Spielberg wanted the audience to see the picture and not read subtitles. The film has a hand-held camera and the acting is of the highest quality. Filming was sped up due to the genocide in Bosnia and thus this cinematic holocaust from the Second World War had a further important function in its time.
Much of the great attention and success of Schindler’s list can perhaps be attributed to its ordinary American cinema launch in February 1994, about a month before the Oscars. It won seven awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and then the international launch followed suit.
Despite the film’s ugly themes, Schindler’s list was a huge success, earning $ 322 million worldwide. But it did not make the director richer for that reason. Spielberg donated his entire fee to the Shoah Foundation when he felt it was wrong to make money on the suffering history of the Jews.
7. The Gray Zone (2001)
In many ways, the Holocaust was a ready-made theme after Schindler’s List and it would require an uncompromising American production to take the Holocaust film in a new direction.
Tim Blake Nelson is mainly known as an actor, but he also works as a screenwriter and director. His interest in the Holocaust can be partly explained by the fact that his Jewish mother and her parents fled Germany to America in 1938. He was also fascinated by the theme of the moral compromise of being in a Sonnderkommando to survive the Holocaust and thus began the story behind the film The Gray Zone (2001). It all started originally as a play by Blake Nelson based on the Hungarian Jew Miklos Nyiszli’s book “A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account” about a doctor who worked as an assistant to Josef Mengele in Auschwitz.
Blake Nelson had done preparatory work with visits to Dachau and Auschwitz and it was the first time the topic of special command was told on the theater stage. The 1996 production was a success and thus Blake Nelson acquired the film rights and used further inspiration in Primo Levi’s autobiographical “The Drowned and The Saved” from the 1986 for a film script.
Israeli Jews Avi and Danny Lerner of independent Millennium Films backed the peculiarly cold and unfeeling project. The film was shot outside Sofia, Bulgaria where a replica of the camp, including the crematorium ovens, was built based on the original architectural plans found in the London War Museum. The aim of the film was not to make another Holocaust film, but something innovative that took the holocaust genre in a new direction.
In the autumn of 1944. In the Auschwitz death camp, Jewish prisoners in one of 13 special commands are ordered to guide newcomers into gas chambers and then cremate their bodies. They get extra meals, better living conditions, and are allowed to live another four months. During a clean-up in the gas chamber one day, a 14-year-old girl has survived against all odds, and Hoffman (David Arquette) decides to save her. At the same time, a revolt is being organized against the prison guards as they know they will be killed as no group has lived longer than four months. While Abramowitz (Steve Buscemi) is ready to escape, leader Simon must make a fateful choice to save the girl or complete the plan that may save hundreds of lives.
In terms of time, The Gray Zone deals with the extermination of Hungarian Jews, the last European country with a larger group of surviving Jews. It sheds light on how the prisoners in one Sonderkommando are faced with a difficult moral dilemma: that Jews are used in connection with the mass murder of Jews, but where they can live for another four months, even if they are to die. They are in a gray zone, hence the title of the film, where there is little difference between good, evil, and survival. It tries to ask why they did it and answers that they did anything to survive in a very extreme situation.
The film is uncompromising in the American Holocaust film context and director and screenwriter Blake Nelson regularly gives us refills with inconveniences. Sonderkommando Jews inevitably take the life of an elderly Jew who is struggling after he has to cremate the rest of his family. Constant train and prisoner transports are followed in detail.
A Jewish prison orchestra plays music to reassure newly arrived Jews who walk straight from the train to the gas chamber. They are shown into changing rooms where they have to leave everything before they are locked in what they think are showers. In a blasphemous way, Hoffman (David Arquette) says that they have to undress, it’s fine, even though he knows they will soon die. Cyclone B is thrown into gas chambers from hatches in the ceiling and leads to walls soiled by bloody handprints. Then stacks of naked bodies must be moved to the crematoria before the ashes of the cremated,
The aim of the film is to give a historically correct reproduction as well as the nihilistic discomfort of realism. The German prison guard Muhsfeldt (played by Harvey Keitel with a German accent), the doctor Nyiszli (Allan Corduner), Josef Mengele (Henry Stram), and the girl who survives (Kamelia Grigorova) are all based on real characters. The men in the Sonderkommandoen, on the other hand, are fictional characters, though based on diaries and other written sources by real people who had this function. Female prisoners who smuggle gunpowder out of dead bodies from the ammunition factory in Birkenau before being caught and tortured are also based on real people.
It is a continuation of an American play and at times you can sense the source in the sometimes-stiff dialogue and acting. The film is somewhat fragmentary without a classic streamlined story and where the unpleasant is repeated. Despite being grim and unsentimental, it is a most impressive film. The sound side has no music, only a faint noise that could be the hiss of the crematorium burning. This is not an escape film and the rebellion is not heroic but comes as a result of desperation. It’s all impressive and well-crafted with chaos, shooting, and explosions filmed with a handheld dynamic camera.
The Gray Zone was to be criticized because the Sonderkommando had no weapons to defend itself with during the uprising on 7 October 1944 and there was no explosion in the crematorium. On the other hand, this was more correctly portrayed in Saul’s son (2015), which deals with the same rebellion and is also based on Nyiszli’s book. If you watch The Gray Zone today, you will see great similarities to Saul’s son. Saul is part of the Sonderkommando working in the crematorium in Auschwitz.
One day he discovers a boy who has survived the gas chamber, but who dies soon after. He sets out on a desperate search for a rabbi so they can offer the boy a dignified burial while planning a rebellion against the jailers. We also see some of the same themes in German Naked among wolves (2015) where prisoners in Buchenwald discover a three-year-old Jewish boy in a smuggled suitcase and where the boy poses a danger that a planned riot may be revealed.
If you do not know the film, it is because most things went wrong in The Gray Zone. Steven Spielberg got to see the film early and stated that this is incredible and that he loved it. He wanted to distribute it through his company DreamWorks, but the studio’s bosses thought it would be compared to Schindler’s List and thus suffer from it. Lionsgate thus gained American distribution rights and on September 11, 2001, the director woke up to good reviews before it was to premiere the same night at the Toronto Film Festival. The world changed in the terrorist attack that day and the film’s momentum disappeared. Thus, it ended up in a kind of forgotten limbo without having been properly rediscovered since.
8. Fateless (2005)
Schindler’s list has such a cemented position in the history of Holocaust film that it may be daring to place (Fateless, 2005) in a higher position, but this is an incredibly gripping and exceptionally well-executed film that deserves to be better known and be on the list of the best holocaust movies based on Auschwitz.
Fateless is a film adaptation of the first Hungarian Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész´’s debut novel “Fateless” from 1975. The novel is about the young Köves, who is taken and taken to a concentration camp, but who adapts and survives. Köves considers the events in the camp as a child without fully understanding them, and without finding them unnatural or outrageous. Kertész himself was deported during World War II as a fourteen-year-old when a Nazi-backed coup in 1944 led to the deportation of Hungary’s 800,000 Jews. “Without Fate” is not an autobiographical story, but is based on the author’s experiences from the war years, and Kertész himself wrote the script for this film.
Hungary 1944, we follow the young boy Gyurka of 14 years from Budapest’s Jewish community. The Jews gather when his father Kovas is sent to a labor camp and Gyurka has to stay with his stepmother. On their way to work one day, Gyurka and other Jewish boys are arrested and gathered with adult Jews. They are being ruthlessly treated by the country’s violent militia and look forward to going to civilized Germany. They are put on a train to Auschwitz and on arrival, they are divided into able-bodied and those who are too young and weak.
This is the story of the war years seen through Gyurka’s eyes, fabulously played by a then fifteen-year-old actor. Childhood is over, and Gyurka quickly matures and learns the necessary knowledge about how to survive in the camp. Director Lajos Koltai is actually a film photographer who has worked on many European and American productions, including Malèna (2000) where he was nominated for an Oscar. To be a debut film excels Fateless itself with wonderful pictures and it is incredibly beautiful visually.
It’s filmed in Panavision with a wide frame and it’s very poetic in a colorless, almost sepia-like color palette. The film presents the exhausting suffering of the camp in such a strong way that the viewer almost experiences it bodily. It is a deeply moving and innovative drama that provides a new perspective on the holocaust and its camps.
The soundscape is equally strong and powerful, delivered in a melancholic manner with touches of pan flute from the masterful Ennio Morricone. Fateless is an authentic film that contributes greatly to the film history of the holocaust. It is a horrifying, harrowing, and very depressing tale from several concentration camps. The atmosphere is dirty and beautiful in all its cruelty. It is a journey down into the gloomy recesses of darkness.
With its huge backdrops of camps and bombed-out cities in ruins, this was the most expensive Hungarian film up to that time. You’d think it was a strong contender for the Oscar Academy, which embraces this type of film, but it never made the list of nominees. As a consolation, it was nominated for the Golden Bear in Berlin. It is unfortunately one of the lesser-known Holocaust films, but one that deserves to be better known.
9. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)
The Boy in the striped Pajamas is another film that deserves to be on the list of the best holocaust movies based on Auschwitz concentration camp. This is a different film about concentration camps and the holocaust and once again it is about a young boy who is put in a very adult situation.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) is a story about the war and the holocaust seen from the point of view of eight-year-old Bruno and tells the absurdities and atrocities of the war through his innocent and curious being. Not unlike The Book Thief (2013), this is a more family-friendly and milder film with a more polished expression than its many thematically similar films.
Bruno (Asa Butterfield) plays in the streets of Berlin while Jews are being forcibly relocated. Bruno looks up to his father Ralf, who in his eyes is a soldier who does important work for the country. In reality, he is a high-ranking Nazi officer who is one day ordered to work elsewhere. Together with his parents and his 12-year-old sister, Bruno suddenly finds himself alone and friendless in the countryside. On a nearby farm, he sees farmers working in pajamas and smoke rising from the farm. One day, Bruno defies his parents’ ban on exploring the grounds behind the house. The adventurous Bruno ventures further where he meets Shmuel, a boy of the same age behind a barbed wire fence.
The Irish writer John Boyne wrote a novel that was launched by the publisher towards young readers. However, it appealed to all age groups and was a great success. The story was not based on a specific incident but bears undeniable similarities to Rudolf Höess, who rose through the ranks and visited Sachsenhausen before becoming commandant at Auschwitz. There he took his family, including his five children, and they lived near the prison camp. His wife Hedwig, according to herself, lived a luxurious life right next to the atrocities without having in-depth knowledge of what happened in the camp.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is undoubtedly a skillfully directed drama about a difficult subject that gradually becomes more serious and dramatic. Thematically, it may have been made for young people, but its content does not make this a film for the youngest, although ironically in its time it was distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures in Norway. The film was never a great success in cinemas, but the reason is probably that it came at the same time as the very popular Max Manus (2008) here at home.
Internationally, the film received very harsh criticism from several who work with the dissemination of the Holocaust because the novel and film were used for educational purposes. The problem was that it was about Bruno and his German family and where the sympathy and feelings lie with them instead of the victims of the Holocaust. If you look at the story from a Jewish point of view, you can see it as a very daring film ethically, but as a film, it is interesting because it tells a different and innovative story that differs from many similar stories.
10. Son of Saul (2015)
In 1944, Hungarian authorities deported 437,000 Jews to extermination camps, mainly Auschwitz. The dedicated Hungarian police surprised Adolf Eichmann who only needed to supervise the operation with 20 officers and a crew of 100.
Son of Saul (2015) is the debut film of Hungarian László Nemes, who had a Jewish mother. He spent many years going through large amounts of source material, reading testimonies from those who worked in the crematorium at Auschwitz and which revealed a reality surrounding the extermination itself that was unknown to him. The film is based on a Sonderkommando, which is a German term for a specific group of prisoners who work in the camp. The members of a Sonderkommando are kept separate from other prisoners and work for only a few months before being executed and replaced.
Saul is a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of Jewish prisoners who are forced to help the Nazis during mass executions. He is blunt and expressionless, marked by everything he has seen and experienced. But one day he discovers a boy who has survived the gas chamber, but who dies shortly afterward. He sets out on a desperate search for a rabbi so they can offer the boy a dignified burial in keeping with his faith. At the same time, an action is taking place in his Sonderkommando where an uprising against the Nazis is being planned.
There is no music in the film, only the assembly line of death with sounds of evil, pain, and despair. The camera is never still, it is rarely cut and we get long scenes with an almost documentary approach. The camera is close to Saul and is always on him or within his line of sight. The horrible things that happen in the camp take place around him, but are a little out of focus. Through Saul’s hunt for the rabbi, we are sluiced through the camp’s gas chamber, crematorium, and where they get rid of any evidence of what happened. It is relentless, unnerving, chaotic, and very exhausting. It is also grim realism where Saul’s son is the one that has managed to come closest cinematically to what we can imagine having been the ugly state of reality in Auschwitz.
Saul’s son completes the cinematic holocaust and it is difficult to imagine that any subsequent film can contribute further. Another incredible aspect is that the film was produced with only one and a half million euros. The last surviving member of a Sonderkommando, Dario Gabbai, was advised not to watch the film, but said that if he didn’t see it, who else could say if it was true? He also thought that it fit quite well. Saul’s son won, among other things, the Grand Prix and the film critics’ prize for best film at the Cannes Film Festival. It later won the Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
11. The Survivor (2021)
Last but not least a recent masterpiece comes to the list of the best holocaust movies based on Auschwitz. The Survivor (2021) in a way ends the cinematic Holocaust ring and resumes boxing in the ring for the sake of entertainment, not unlike what The Boxer and Death did sixty years earlier.
Not unlike previous holocaust films, the life of a privileged prisoner must be spared in return for him boxing for entertainment and for his life in The Survivor. The Polish Jew Hertzko Haft was in the Auschwitz concentration camp where an SS officer saw their potential in him and trained him to become a boxer who would both fight for his life and to entertain the SS officers. The script is based on Alan Scott Haft’s book “Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano” from 2006, which is the biographical story of Alan’s father. The director is 79-year-old Barry Levinson, who had relatives who were in concentration camps during the war.
The Survivor stands in stark contrast to his sultry war films Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and Rain Man (1988) which, among other things, won the Oscar for best film and best director. As a modern parallel to Raging Bull (1980), the film’s lead actor Ben Foster lost 28 kilos in weight before filming the concentration camp scenes. These were shot on a set in Hungary, then he had to put on weight and train again for the scenes as a muscular boxer shot in the US. The film is essentially told through two timelines with Auschwitz in 1943 and the United States in 1949, and the Shoah Foundation contributed as consultants with historical information.
Auschwitz 1943, Hertzko Haft (Ben Foster) is picked out by SS officer Schneider (Billy Magnussen) who trains him to become a boxer. With life at stake, he will fight against his fellow prisoners while German guards bet money on who will emerge victorious and alive from the battle. Hertzko is now Poland’s best-protected Jew, but only until he eventually wins the next match.
Entering boxing six years later, he is presented as the pride of Poland and as the survivor of Auschwitz. But Haft’s career is on the decline, he is struggling with post-traumatic stress and inner demons from his experiences during the war. At the same time, he searches for his girlfriend Leah, who was abducted at the outbreak of the war. When the journalist Emory Anderson (Peter Sarsgaard) wants to convey his story of survival, it is the hunt for Leah that becomes Haft’s motive.
The narrative structure that alternates between present and past in holocaust films has been done successfully in the past. As in Sophie’s Choice are alternately two parallel stories that build up to the film’s powerful final score. And as mentioned earlier, it is also not unusual for films to combine the Holocaust with sporting themes. Ben Foster delivers a hard-hitting performance as an involuntary entertainer in a sort of morbid gladiatorial combat.
With a linguistic cacophony of German, English, Jewish, and Polish, the scenes in Auschwitz are recorded in black and white. According to cinematographer George Steel, the post-war scenes were shot in a lighter color palette with an increasing amount of color the closer the story reaches the 1960s. Colors were also experimented with in the death camp, but the result was far too disturbing. The black-and-white film also managed, with the right lighting, to reproduce Foster’s weight loss in the best possible way.
Once again, it is a film about moral dilemmas, inhuman choices, and the struggle for survival. If Haft is to survive another day, he must fight and win the next match. Schneider is the one who prevents him from ending up in the gas chamber. At the same time, his victory means the certain death of his fellow prisoner and in a degrading way, he helps to entertain the SS guards. It is the classic battle between good and evil presented with Jews against Nazis. A parallel story has a further battle against inner demons, post-traumatic stress, inhuman memories, and guilt. The question is cautiously asked why the Nazis hate Jews while the film refers to the discrimination of African Americans in the United States in the late 1940s.
It is first and foremost a biographical Holocaust film about an unusual character and where sports themes become the underlying theme. The film is based on a true story, but the character Schneider is not real, he is a composition of several and the filmmakers are open that this is a fiction film. On the one hand, the scenes in Auschwitz appear authentic, but inhuman and very unpleasant. In style and tone, they are thus reminiscent of those in The Gray Zone. The fights in the boxing ring in both time periods are strongly made and very well-choreographed, but it is not necessarily the opponent in the ring who is the real opponent.
The film jumps back and forth in time either by Haft retelling his story or through his evoked memories due to post-traumatic stress. With two timelines, rather than a long story set in Auschwitz, the film becomes milder and more compliant to a wider audience.
On the other hand, the film loses some of its punch with constant interruptions in the secondary narrative from the extermination camp. Had the film followed the common thread without time jumps, the uncertainty surrounding the characters’ fate could have led to an even stronger dramaturgy.