The Photographer of Mauthausen shines a light on one of the lesser known Nazi concentration camps. Mauthausen, located in Upper Austria, was opened in August 1938 and was responsible for anywhere between 122,766 and 320,000 deaths until it was liberated by the U.S. Army in 1945.
The camp hosted a large variety of prisoners including Poles, any Germans who refused to follow Hitler, Spaniards, Russians, Austrians and Jews — all who were distinguished by different colored triangles. The movie mostly follows the Spanish prisoners who are indicated by a blue triangle with a small “S”.
The film opens up with an out-of-focus view of the Spanish prisoners walking toward you and a brief explanation of how they arrived to the camp. Then, after focusing, the camera zooms in on the gate to Mauthausen with The Reichsadler, the Nazi’s emblem, mounted on top. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie. There is a bluish hue that is shown — and continues throughout the movie — invoking a melancholic feeling before the movie has even begun.
The movie, which is spoken in Spanish and some German, follows the experiences of a Spanish prisoner named Francisco Boix. Boix explains at the beginning of the movie that everything at Mauthausen was meant to impress you, but it was “puro teatro” — or “all a show.” This was said to explain the Nazis’ practice of taking photos of what happened in the camp to illustrate this camp as being a place that, under the circumstances, was satisfactory for the soldiers captured during the war.
Boix, who was taken in as a photographer for the Germans, notices the staging of circumstances and photographs to make the camp seem just. Whether it be placing dead prisoners a certain way to make it seem like they were killed while trying to escape or manipulating the images from the negatives in the darkroom, the Germans printed countless photos that masked the cruelties of the camp.
Due to his position, Boix had access to all the original negatives before they were modified and when the Germans ordered them to be burned, he knew he couldn’t let that happen. Boix recruits other prisoners to help him hide rolls of film so that there would be evidence of the Germans actions. After the camp was liberated, Boix had saved over 20,000 negatives.
The film captures the tragedies of this camp, and others like it, extraordinarily well. The viewer sees first-hand the atrocities, both physical and mental, performed by the Germans from a unique perspective.
The film portrays a wide variety of powerful characters ranging from the classic Nazi commander to Boix himself, a prisoner. One of the most interesting characters shown was Paul Ricken. While there was a man by that name at Mauthausen, he was an accountant for the camp — it’s undetermined if it is based off him or not. In the movie he portrays the Chief of Identification Service, or the main photographer of the camp that Boix worked for.
Although Ricken’s character was never someone who tortured or killed anyone, he was arguably the worst of all the Germans in this movie. He stood behind a camera and captured everything that happened to the prisoners, calling it art. At the end of the film after the camp was liberated, Boix comes across Ricken sitting alone in the darkroom. Ricken askes Boix to spare his life, saying “I only took pictures. I haven’t killed anyone … I immortalized them.” He tried to justify his actions but instead showed why what he did was just as unforgivable as the rest.
At the end viewers are shown some of the actual negatives that Boix recovered from the camp — this was my favorite part of the movie. Initially, the photos seemed like stills from the movie due to how they were almost identical from the ones shown throughout the film. The attention to detail was amazing.
Overall, I think Netflix succeeded in creating a movie that depicts a well-known and well-documented moment in history from a unique angle. The movie’s meaningful characters paired with its beautiful cinematography captures the viewer’s attention from the start and keeps them hooked as it paints the story of Francisco Boix.
Contact Tristan Lorei at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.