'The Tattooist of Auschwitz' Review: Peacock's Holocaust Drama


The Tattooist of Auschwitz has a distinctive way of way of marking death. Each time someone passes, the drama pauses on a moving portrait of their face in life, against the grim toll of a bell. Sometimes, it’s how we learn a character we’ve been following for several episodes has been killed. At others, it’s the only good look we get at people whose names we never even learn before they’re slaughtered.

Always, it’s hard to bear. Their eyes bore right through the camera, their expressions unreadable and their thoughts unknowable. Each stare nonetheless lands as a plea — for us to notice, to remember, to not look away — and the Peacock miniseries takes seriously the responsibility to bear witness.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Bottom Line

The message lands, even when the story stumbles.

Airdate: Thursday, May 2 (Peacock)
Cast: Jonah Hauer-King, Melanie Lynskey, Anna Próchniak, Jonas Nay, Harvey Keitel
Developed by: Jacquelin Perske, from the novel by Heather Morris

But the gravity of a noble mission can also become an albatross. In spite of the touching romance at its heart, The Tattooist of Auschwitz feels like a means of conveying an urgent message, rather than a story to get swept up in for its own sake.

The self-conscious morality of The Tattooist of Auschwitz is most strongly reflected in creator Jacqueline Perske’s choice to include as a character Heather Morris (a wasted Melanie Lynskey), the writer who will go on to pen the 2018 novel that inspires this very drama. She is the audience surrogate, leaning in with care and curiosity as concentration camp survivor Lali (Harvey Keitel, congenial and heartbreaking) relays his extraordinary saga. She also serves as our conscience, repeatedly stressing how “important” this tale is. After one session lands her in the hospital with a panic attack, she insists to her husband that she must nevertheless press on. “None of the things Lali went through, none of it happened to me,” she says. “And to make it about me would be a bloody insult.”

Her comment lands as a reproach to viewers who might be in their own feelings about Lali’s harrowing account, though by that point — four episodes in, out of six — it’s likely plenty will have tuned out already, unable to stomach its graphic horrors. By the bleak standards of the camp, Lali (played by Jonah Hauer-King as a younger man) is luckier than most. His job etching numbers into the arms of fellow prisoners grants him some minor perks and a modicum of freedom.

He still endures plenty of terror. Early in his internment, he vomits at the sight of a truck piled high with naked corpses. Weeks later, he’s ushered into a gas chamber to identify two bodies crumbled on the ground. His Nazi handler, Stefan (Jonas Nay), reacts to his terror with amusement. “You are now the only Jew who walked into this place and also walked out!” he chortles afterward.

And that’s just in the first hour (directed, along with the rest, by Tali Shalom-Ezer). Subsequent chapters bring beatings and rapes, shootings and hangings, suicides and cruelly thwarted attempts at same, set to Hans Zimmer and Kara Talve’s somber score. The Tattooist of Auschwitz‘s saving grace is that they also bring moments of compassion and bravery and connection. The inmates offer each other comfort or levity, trade scraps of food and stolen trinkets, risk their lives to save one another.

But the most vivid testament to the human spirit is the unlikely romance that blossoms between Lali and Gita (Anna Próchniak), another Slovakian Jewish prisoner. Almost from the moment their eyes meet over his tattoo needle, their bond becomes the central purpose of both their lives — a precious scrap of joy to cling to amid so much sorrow. The extremity of their circumstances cannot help but flatten the characters; under the vicious watch of Nazi guards, there’s little room to tease out the idiosyncrasies that turn a broadly inspiring love story into a personal and specific one. But Próchniak and Hauer-King conjure a desperate chemistry that sells the intensity of the couple’s emotions, if not their intimate contours.

In the hands of their perpetrators, however, even something as pure as love can become a liability. Stefan wields the relationship as both carrot and stick, arranging trysts with Gita in exchange for favors from Lali or menacing her to keep him in line. In time, the dynamic between the men evolves into a strange codependency, in which lonely Stefan comes to rely on Lali as something between a confidant and a pet. “You were like a brother to me,” the Nazi tells his captive in one of their final interactions, with apparent and unsettling sincerity. As the older Lali reflects on these times, the figures from his past appear in his living room like ghosts. It is Stefan who appears most frequently to sprawl across his chair and taunt him with questions or glower in silence.

As haunted as Lali is by the things that were done to him, he’s most tormented by what he was made to do to others by Stefan and men like him. Decades later, in interviews that he himself has arranged, Lali still struggles to choke the words out. He’ll tell Heather one version of events and then — haltingly, painfully, under taunts from his specters — backtrack to reveal an uglier truth.

But while Lali wrestles with the question of his own complicity, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is clear and definitive in its answer. “I see a picture of a man who was forced to look at a dark part of himself,” Heather murmurs on our behalf. “A part he didn’t know existed. A part that’s in all of us.” She might be ultimately right. But the series misses the opportunity to dig more fully into the extreme cognitive dissonance of Lali’s position, or to consider the perspectives of other prisoners affected by it.

On the other hand, it’s tough to fault the series for wanting to extend the mercy of ready forgiveness to a man who’s suffered more than enough already. Though Lali and Gita will go on to enjoy six decades of marriage, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is quick to clarify that theirs is not exactly a happily ever after. The glimpses we have of the couple in the years after their release shimmer with love, but are also shadowed by guilt and depression; as Lali puts it, “The past followed us like a sick dog.” The bittersweet Barbra Streisand-soundtracked ending makes for a stark contrast to the more triumphant arcs of other recent World War II dramas, like Hulu’s We Were the Lucky Ones or Apple TV+’s The New Look — and, the series would surely argue, a necessary one. As long as the experience doesn’t completely crush you before you get there.



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