Hope amid horror

Hope amid horror

By Michael Pickard
April 24, 2024


DQ heads to Bratislava, Slovakia, to see the making of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Sky and Peacock’s adaptation of Heather Morris’s novel inspired by a real love story set against the atrocities of a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust.

In a large field on the outskirts of Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, a number of large wooden huts have been built, surrounded by tall barbed wire fences and guard lookout towers. Beneath heavy rain and with thick mud underfoot, it’s a foreboding setting, made all the more ominous by the fact that it stands in for Auschwitz, the location of one of the worst atrocities in history.

Around six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis throughout Europe during the Holocaust, culminating in the establishment of numerous death camps during the Second World War. But amid the unspeakable horror that took place at the largest one, Auschwitz, and at others like it, there were also examples of remarkable courage, bravery and resilience. It is one such story, a love story, that is retold in Sky and Peacock series The Tattooist of Auschwitz.

Based on Heather Morris’s novel of the same name, the six-parter is inspired by the true story of Lali and Gita Sokolov, who met as prisoners at the same concentration camp.

Lali (played by Jonah Hauer-King) is a Slovakian Jew, who in 1942 is deported to Auschwitz, where more than a million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Shortly after arrival, he is made one of the Tätowierer (tattooists), charged with inking identification numbers onto fellow prisoners’ arms.

One day, he meets Gita (Anna Próchniak) when tattooing her prisoner number on her arm, leading to a love that defies the horrors around them. And despite living under constant guard from volatile SS officer Stefan Baretzki (Jonas Nay), Lali and Gita become determined to keep each other alive.

Anna Próchniak and Jonah Hauer-King star as Gita and Lali

Some 60 years later, Lali (Harvey Keitel), now in his 80s, meets aspiring writer Heather Morris (Melanie Lynskey), and the recent widower finds the courage to tell his story to the world. In recounting his past to Heather, Lali finally confronts the traumatic ghosts of his youth and relives his memories of falling in love in the darkest of places.

Championing the strength of the human spirit and the power of love and friendship, the series comes from Synchronicity Films, which has reteamed with The Cry screenwriter Jacquelin Perske to bring Morris’s novel – and Lali and Gita’s story – to the screen. NBCUniversal Global TV Distribution and All3Media International are jointly handling international sales of the series.

“I’m very drawn to stories that are based on real life, and it just struck us as such an extraordinary love story,” Synchronicity creative director and series executive producer Claire Mundell tells DQ. “I had never seen a love story told in a notorious, murderous death camp such as Auschwitz. It was so inspiring that two people could survive a place like that when so many others didn’t, but also that they could find each other and they could fall in love. In fact, they became each other’s survival, and that has inherent drama in it.

“But it’s also a specific story of trauma, of one man’s experience of what it was like to be there and what it took him to survive what he, Gita and so many others had to endure. The book continues to capture people’s hearts and inspire people, and great drama does that. It was a daunting challenge but I like a challenge.”

Australian writer Perske hadn’t read Morris’s novel until Mundell sent it to her. “I was interested in the epic nature of the story; the victory of love and hope in a very dark place in history,” she says. “I was also drawn to the fact that Lali Sokolov had lived in Melbourne and the writer was a New Zealand woman who had lived in Australia.”

The production team worked closely with Morris across development and production of the series – but first had long conversations about whether they should adapt her book at all. Did the world need another project set at this time, they wondered, and if so, how could they make this series different?

Harvey Keitel plays the older Lali, who tells his story to Heather (Melanie Lynskey)

Perske, Mundell and script producer Ruth Underwood spent a lot of time with Morris, discussing her time with Lali. It was then that Perske had the idea to use Morris and Lali’s meetings as a framing device for the adaptation, which opens with Keitel and Lynskey as older Lali and Heather, before flashing back to Lali’s time at Auschwitz.

“They are such an unlikely pair, another love story in fact,” the writer observes. “It was Heather’s patience and care that allowed him to finally tell his story. I thought their story and friendship was rich and interesting and, in a story about love, it made sense to include them. It also allowed me to tell the story of memory – how our memory of events can change over time, how traumatic events and experiences can become memories that return to haunt and harm you forever.”

“It seemed like in honouring Lali and Gita’s story, it was a way to honour Holocaust survivors in general by depicting the way Heather and his relationship played out,” Mundell says. “It’s an interesting structure and, of course, we were completely thrilled when we were able to cast Harvey Keitel in that role and Melanie Lynskey as Heather.”

When it came to the scripts, Perske first wrote an extended outline of what the episodes might look like. Then when Sky greenlit the project, she started writing the full script alongside two other writers, Gabbie Asher and Evan Placey.

Perske had to overcome many challenges during the writing process, including “telling a story that was honest and authentic within the bounds of storytelling; finding the balance between the love story and the reality of the camp; making sure characters based on real people were sensitive and inspired by reality while also needing to create characters that worked from the drama; managing the scale of the story; and balancing the past story with the present story.” She adds: “I wanted to build a world that was nuanced and explore human beings under the most deplorable circumstances – how do they respond?”

Lali and Gita’s story needed to be balanced with acknowledging where and how their relationship was formed within a notorious concentration camp. “So we also have a responsibility to make sure people understand the nature of that place,” Mundell says. “We’ve tried to depict that as much as we can within the confines of a television drama. We have to weigh up the environment versus the love story, but it’s the environment that makes the love story all the greater, because it’s an act of choice for Lali and Gita to be together in that place. It’s an act of defiance against the situation they are in.”

Lali meets Gita for the first time when he tattoos her arm

Perske notes: “This was a place where humanity failed, and its clear depiction was a priority for the whole team. Getting the balance right was very important.”

Across several sites in Bratislava, the camp was recreated with a combination of practical builds and set extensions using visual effects, which will make it appear many times bigger than the main camp set actually was. A nearby former sugar factory was also used for some elements of the camp, and is where the gates carrying the sign “Arbeit macht frei” (‘Work sets you free’), which prisoners walked beneath on arriving at Auschwitz, was recreated.

Throughout the 85-day shoot, authenticity was sought at every turn. The creative team – including director Tali Shalom-Ezer, production designer Stevie Herbert, visual effects supervising producer Alan Church and visual effects production supervisor Simon Giles – all visited the real Auschwitz camps and museums during the early stages of development to inform their work on the series, while they were supported by historical and Jewish cultural consultant Naomi Gryn.

“Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, particularly the Birkenau part of the camp, is vast; it’s huge. But we did decide we would recreate our smaller version of the set in the same general layout, so we were looking for a field with particular features to it and where the sun rose and set in the same way to mimic the layout of the camp,” Mundell says. “We knew what the component parts were that we had to build, but it was a daunting prospect to be doing that in December and January before a shoot that started in mid-February [2023].”

Trucks carrying mobile green screens were positioned around the perimeter of the camp set so the backgrounds could be digitally extended in post-production, while it was constructed in such a way that sections could be shot from different angles to play different roles in the drama, such as the men’s and women’s parts of the camps.

“It was a massive undertaking and I’m in awe of Stevie and Pilar [Foy, supervising art director] and the construction team and what they achieved,” Mundell says. “It was truly incredible to watch, and super inspiring.”

Jonas Nay (Deutschland 83) plays volatile SS officer Stefan Baretzki

Herbert had read Morris’s novel, so she knew what her task would entail when she signed up. “But I didn’t come to it raw,” she says. Her father had told her of his time doing national service outside Belsen, another concentration camp, while she has also been to the Treblinka camp herself. “I just felt [the series] was something I had to do. I couldn’t turn away from it,” she says. “I met a Holocaust survivor in Australia in 2006, Olga Horak, and one of the things you come across constantly is the survivors need to tell their story. They want to be remembered. It’s an essential history that we should all know about, because it’s about all of us.”

Despite some talks about filming the Australian sections of the series down under, those scenes ended up being performed on built sets. “But we knew we had to build the camp. We knew we had to build the Auschwitz gate. It’s 80, 90% built,” Herbert says. “When we were deciding what to build, it was phenomenally difficult. We were in the office with the writers, with the scripts, travelling Lali’s journeys through the camp. We had a giant map of all of the huts and the barracks and the buildings, and we literally tracked him. But when we solved one problem, it would give us another.”

With so much of the set to be extended digitally, Herbert (The Long Song, The Durrells) says her partnership with the VFX team on The Tattooist of Auschwitz was more personal than on any other project she has worked on.

“Their office was just down the hall and it was a constant conversation,” she says. “There were big set pieces we talked through, but it’s not just about the physicality. You’re not just saying, ‘These buildings do this.’ You talk about the emotion of the piece and what you’re trying to achieve.”

Working with her team in Slovakia, Herbert faced the traditional challenges of time and budget. But like many of the creatives on the series – a group that also includes Oscar winner Hans Zimmer and Kara Talve, who scored the soundtrack – she says the experience of making the show brought them closer together, and the job continues to unite them. Synchronicity has also made counselling services available to any cast or crew members who might want to access them after dealing with the difficult subject matter contained in the series.

“As creatives, our work stays with us a lot of the time,” Herbert adds. “This is not a project you just put down. It’s an experience that stays with you. It really makes you think about the world and people and how you want to proceed with your life and what you want to achieve and fight for.”

When The Tattooist of Auschwitz debuts on May 2 – it will launch on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW in the UK and Ireland, Italy, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Peacock in the US and Stan in Australia, as well as on SkyShowtime across Europe – Mundell hopes the show’s central theme, that love can be found in dark places, resonates with viewers around the world.

“Hopefully people will be moved by the emotion of it. They’ll be moved by two people who found each other, and who had to endure what they did as so many other people did and so many people did not because of how many perished there,” she says. “But I hope the audience will see the perils of intolerance and antisemitism and choose tolerance and love instead of hate. That’s partly why the book is so successful. There’s a very pure message at its heart, which is inspiring on so many levels.”

Hounsum’s daunting task
Among the vast number of roles undertaken by the crew of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, there won’t have been many more intimate or affecting tasks performed than those completed by hair and make-up designer Frances Hounsom (The Rising) and her team.

For the numbers inked on each character in the Auschwitz camp, Hounsom hand-drew 1,020 individual tattoos, which were then printed onto transfer paper and applied to every actor on every day of shooting.

Then for scenes where the tattooing is shown on camera, she worked with cultural advisor Naomi Gryn to find out how the process worked and what tools were used, and spoke to the actors about how it would happen. “It took a lot of practice and a lot of skill, but the actors did really well,” she says.

Cutting the hair of many of the actors proved to be particularly poignant. They were given the option to wear bald caps with wigs, or to have their hair cut for real – and many chose the latter option.

In total, eight main cast and 10 supporting actors had their real hair shaved off. Their hair has since been donated to the Little Princess Trust, a charity that provides real-hair wigs to children and young people who have lost their hair through cancer treatment or other conditions.

Hounsom also designed and created a wig for Harvey Keitel, playing older Lali, which involved a wig piece and silicone bald plate, as well as a set of fake teeth.

In total, Hounsom and her team of two other UK artists and 10 Slovakian artists worked with 60 main cast and more than 1,000 background actors across the shoot.

“It’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” she says. “I still meet up with the cast and we go for coffee, and I think we will forever, because it’s an experience you’ve been through together and it’s something that will always stay with me. It’s an honour to be a part of that project and to represent that time in some way and to show that story.”

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