There have been so many stories of heroism, resistance, sacrifice and rebellion surround World War Two that seems almost impossible to have “missed” any. However, it is the unknown story of a Polish champion boxer that is the subject of writer / director Maciej Barczewski’s biopic, The Champion of Auschwitz (Mistrz).
Born in Warsaw in 1917, Tadeusz “Teddy” Pietrzykowski was an extremely promising boxer who had competed at a national level. A proud Pole, he had also sought to fight to liberate his country from Nazi rule by joining Polish military units who had formed in France. He was caught whilst illegally trying to cross a national border and was deported to Auschwitz in one of the first transportations to the camp in 1940. It was there he became prisoner number 77 – and a national hero.
From the outset, Barczewski establishes a relentless pattern of brutality that permeates the entire film. This might be the early days of Auschwitz Birkenau, but death and violence are no less prevalent. Within the first ten minutes, we see a man have his head caved in with a shovel and several men lined up and shot at point blank range. The dehumanization of the prisoners is instant – not just in shaved heads and striped uniforms – but in the way they are spoken to, worked and barely fed. The camera slowly pans down the new intake, including Teddy, as a guard barks that they are not expected to live longer than a month.
Juxtaposition is used often to highlight the endless horrors at Auschwitz. The opulent marble and silk of the Rapportfuhrer’s house is positively vulgar in comparison the cramped bunks of the prisoners. The infirmary used by the guards and Kapos is clean and freshly painted whilst the “hospital” used by prisoners is full of emaciated bodies lying on a dirty straw floor. A prisoner gives a piano recital for the SS and their wives – complete with twinkling fairy lights hung around the gallows. A pile of naked dead bodies ends up underneath the camp Christmas tree. Barczewski rarely allows you to catch your breath before guiding your gaze to the next atrocity. This is not – by any stretch – a sanitized, Hollywood version of events. Every word, every look seems brimming with threat.
“Life” at the concentration camp falls into a particular rhythm – people come in, bodies go out. This is punctuated by nightly arrivals who are all ordered into the gas chambers. Their screams, cries for help, futile attempts at escape are allowed to overtake all other noise in the film three times. They are perhaps some of the most provocative, appalling moments in cinema.
Piotr Glowacki, in the lead role of Teddy, gives a thoroughly captivating performance. From the outset, you can see the grit in his gaze – he is a survivor and he is determined to help those around him to survive, too. Naturally, this is a very physical performance and Glowacki has risen to the challenge of managing to look both worn out by physical labour and starvation and fighting fit. He gives an incredibly raw and human central performance. His silent scream – around the hour mark – is absolutely haunting.
Jan Szydlowski, as Janek, is equally brilliant to watch. He is so young and defenceless, he immediately garners your sympathy. The relationship and bond that develops between him and Teddy is so full of hope and love at a time when the world seemed to be devoid of either.
Praise must also be heaped on the boxing choreography and cinematography. Teddy floats around the ring – knowing that a win is so much more than the prize of a loaf of bread. The camera ducks and weaves alongside him as he takes on challengers more than double his size. You can hear the pant of every breath; hear skin split under every blow. It is its own miniature ballet, complete with a visceral soundtrack.
The actual soundtrack itself is very minimal and understated. There are echoes of strings and piano music at moments of heighted tension. But most of the horrors are left to unfold in complete silence, as if to say that no beauty or softening should be applied. This is also evident in the use of colour – or lack of – throughout. The film feels as if it has been washed in a muted grey – again, underlining the stark and brutal realities of the concentration camp.
If you can watch The Champion of Auschwitz without so much as a flinch, gasp or a tear, you are made of stronger stuff than Teddy himself. Bringing to life an unknown story of survival and heroism, Maciej Barczewski’s biopic showcases the sheer indomitability of the human spirit at a time when humanity was at its very worst. A phenomenal, emotive piece of cinema.
The Champion of Auschwitz will be available in UK/EIRE Cinemas from 3rd September, 2021