Movie Review: “The Photographer of Mauthausen,” Directed by Mar Targarona. 1 hour, 50 minutes. In Spanish and German with subtitles
Spanish Democracy in Shreds
In the news, we see that President Trump’s new best friend, the fascist President of Brazil, is involving himself in world affairs as part of Trump’s amen chorus. At the same time, the movies keep bathing us in the horrors about the last time the world lurched this close to fascism.
The 2018 Netflix film from Spain tells about a horror camp with a 50% survival rate. As in all of these many films, the Nazis humiliate, torture, gas, and otherwise murder an endless stream of victims throughout the film. The main protagonist is one of the fighters from the Spanish Republic who sought refuge after the fascist General Franco, thanks to the generosity of Mussolini and Hitler, ripped up democracy in his home country.
Some of the inmates of Nazi concentration camps, we already know from previous movies, were spared the worst of the hardships because they had a particular skill that the fascists valued. Francisco, or Franz as they call him, was a photographer.
As the inmates become aware that the German army is losing on the Eastern front, Franz convinces his fellow communist inmates that they must preserve the record of the horrors of Mauthausen. The Nazis order all incriminating photos and negatives destroyed, but Franz starts hiding them so that, he hopes, justice may someday be served. You can guess what images they select for the ending scenes of the movie.
There is a graphic novel and a movie sharing this story. I first heard about them in a review in a magazine, “The Volunteer,” about the Abraham Lincoln Brigades – the Americans who went to Spain in a hopeless attempt to preserve democracy. They appreciated both the graphic novel and the movie, even though they had some criticisms about what actually happened and yearned, as I do, for some stronger way to convey the truth. Graphic novels and movies, after all, are mostly entertainment. I think they preferred a documentary book, “Spaniards in Mauthausen,” by Sara Brenneis. She says that 10,000 who fought for the Republic ended up in Mauthausen. By now, those of us interested in fascism yesterday and tomorrow aren’t impressed even by numbers. Ten thousand tortured? Sixty million dead? How can we even imagine it?
The new movie teaches its lessons well. We learn what people have gone through and how the survivors survived. All the while, as I watched these Spaniards suffer for their heroism, I kept thinking that the most horrible of the horrors of fascism boils down to one main thing: it wasn’t necessary. There was nothing in the stars or the affairs of humankind that brought us to the holocaust. People, a few people, made it happen and other people, a few other people, were complicit because they could have made it stop.
I’m also reading a book about the United States and the Spanish Civil War, even though it wasn’t a civil war at all, and I look forward to reviewing it here. If I am too preachy, then I defend myself because this is a time for preaching.
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