There are certain films that let viewers know off the bat that they are not going to be cozy watches. Horror films can be harsh, yet seasoned Horror fans can make a party night out of its more notorious entries. Few people are breaking out the chips and dips when it comes to the Holocaust, an atrocity that still has repercussions to this day.
The Nazi’s attempted genocide of Europe’s Jews, along with anyone else they did not like the look or sound of, has struck at people’s hearts through all kinds of media. Though some of the most memorable media to come from it has been in film, be it 1982’s Sophie’s Choice, 1993’s Schindler’s List, or 2008’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Even some attempted projects based on it have gained notoriety, like The Day the Clown Cried, the unreleased directorial effort from Jerry Lewis. All this in mind, coming to DVD in the UK on May 6th thanks to High Fliers Films plc, The Guard of Auschwitz offers a new entry on the horror. Written by Director Terry Lee Coker (London Payback 2014, Essex Vendetta 2016) alongside Script Advisor and Actor Michael McKell (Emmerdale series, Allied 2016), it offers a unique perspective on the Holocaust.
This time, it is through the eyes of Hans (Lewis Kirk: Les Misérables 2012, Babs 2017), an aspiring artist since childhood, whose ambitions get sidetracked by the promises of leading Germany into a new age. He ends up rising from the Hitler Youth to the SS and ends up stationed at the most notorious concentration camp of all – Auschwitz-Birkenau. How does he reconcile what he believes in with what he has to do? How does he live with himself afterwards?
This is not Coker’s first Holocaust picture, as it follows 2018’s The Angel of Auschwitz. The two pictures even share some cast members, such as McKell, Steven Bush (Walking on Cars: Catch Me If You Can 2015), and Noeleen Comiskey (Eastenders series, The Beyond 2017). It is not a sequel though. The two films share a setting, but feature different roles with little reference to each other. So, there is more for a viewer’s buck if this film takes their fancy.
But can The Guard of Auschwitz stand up on its own? Most of the cast made their names in popular UK soaps and TV dramas, like Emmerdale and Eastenders. They are usually more solid than their US soap/novella counterparts, though they rarely match America’s TV dramas like Breaking Bad or The Wire. As such, The Guard of Auschwitz unfortunately leans more towards Emmerdale than The Wire in its acting.
That is not to say it is bad, as the cast read their lines well. Kirk does well as the Nazi with a conflicted conscience, as does McKell as his conscience-less superior Klaus. Claudia Grace McKell (Who Needs Enemies 2013, Leonard 2017) does a nice job as Helena, confronting Hans’ cognitive biases and challenging his conflicted morality.
Yet, they do come off more melodramatic than dramatic. The film does not so much build up the tension as jump to it. Hans is driven to the brink before he gets to know Helena, and their interactions jump a few levels across a few scenes. The cruelty of Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List is chilling and haunting. While M. McKell’s Klaus and his horrific acts play out more like a dark pantomime, a tone that is not helped by the sudden, swelling strings when the Nazi officers enter a scene.
The writing is not particularly subtle about its dramatic twists and turns. If it were, then its scenes and climax would pack more of a punch. The audience would get to know the characters better and sympathize with them and their situation. Here, they get the situation, which is sad enough, but it comes across more cheesy than haunting.
The production is reasonable, if not stellar. It looks cheap, yet the crew used the budget well to achieve a convincing look on camera. The prisoners’ bunkers look accurate in their design and squalor, as do the costumes from the Nazi uniforms to the striped prison garb. They are all noticeably sets, yet they even do a fair job at replicating exterior settings through some handy design work, lighting, and smoke effects.
There are a few genuine outdoor scenes, usually of Hans prior to his camp position, that look great. Including some nice edits that foreshadow later events. It may be the humblest of made-for-TV quality, but its work is admirable. As are the cast’s attempts at putting on German and Polish accents, though whether it hits the mark is another story.
So, how does The Guard of Auschwitz stand up? It tells an earnest story of moral quandaries that goes straight for the heart. Not to mention it has some strong design work, particularly with its lighting and sets. However, the acting and writing lay the drama on thick. It is not as heavy-handed as Telemundo’s best efforts, though it is not exactly subtle either. Serious drama enthusiasts will be better suited to classic Holocaust tales. Yet, there is a charm to The Guard of Auschwitz that is worth watching. Enough for Cryptic Rock to give it 3 out of 5 stars.