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Review ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’: gripping drama, hard to watch

Young Lali (Jonah Hauer King World on fire), who works in a department store in Bratislava, Slovakia, loses his job because he is Jewish and rejoins his family in the country. (Slovakia at that time, 1942, was a puppet state of Nazi Germany.) Orders are given that every household must provide an adult for war work in Poland, and the cheerful young man boards the train despite a last minute warning from a friend. Auschwitz is a nightmare of horror, violence and unpredictability, where death can occur at any time for no reason. The dead are never far away. The story is interrupted by images of the dead, staring at the camera and us, accompanied by an eerie ripple of strings. Sometimes we know that these people have died; sometimes it’s a narrative shortcut.

Lali trained as a tattoo artist, knowing that it would increase his chances of survival, with better living conditions and more food. He also knows that he now works for the SS. He soothes his conscience by doing his job as gently as possible and apologizing for causing pain, because his goal is to survive at all costs, especially when he meets the love of his life.

Incredibly, he falls in love with Gita Furman (Anna Prochniak) as he tattoos her arm, and she jokes that she wants pink ink. From that moment on, they are both determined to survive, against all odds, and Lali finds an unlikely ally in the form of SS officer Stefan Baretzki (Jonas No), who acts as an intermediary. It is a complex relationship to understand, abusive and transactional, with an intimacy that does not end in death. Stefan haunts Lali six decades later, appearing at his apartment, triggering unwanted memories and challenging his version of events. Several times Lali has to come back and tell Heather what happened. She sees it as evidence of his faulty memory, or of regret – for example, not saying goodbye to his mother properly, and later finding out that almost his entire family has been taken to the camps.