Somehow, in thinking of the horrors of the Holocaust, thoughts of Greece do not spring readily to mind. And yet, obviously there were Jews in Greece, and many were interned after the Nazis occupied Greece in 1941. "Triumph Of The Spirit" follows the story of Salamo Arouch, a Greek champion boxer who is among those sent to Auschwitz.
Arouch's story is interesting. He uses boxing as a way of staying alive - fighting other prisoners for the entertainment of Nazi officers and officials, knowing full well that those he defeats are destined almost certainly for execution - and that the same fate awaited him if he were to lose. The movie is rife with reflection on collaboration. The Sonderkommandos (Jews who actively worked with the Nazis in exchange for privileges which included perhaps a few extra months of life) are front and centre in this, and we see various internees doing various things to placate the Nazis, to earn favour with them - and, in the circumstances, who can blame them. They were uprooted from often comfortable lives and placed almost literally into hell. Defiance might have been the more noble choice, but some form of collaboration was more practical. But the choice was never easy, and consciences were surely wounded as those decisions were made. Arouch was played by Willem Defoe - not my favourite actor, but he handled the part quite well. Some license was taken with his story, as is almost always the case when a story "based on fact" is portrayed, but basically from what I've been able to learn the broad sweep of Arouch's story is told. Really, though, Arouch fades into the background in this - or, at least, he did for me.
It was the sheer brutality of Auschwitz and of Nazism that was the engine driving this movie forward. It's a realistic and gripping portrayal of the conditions in the camp - all under the slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" - "work makes free" - the slogan that appeared over the gates entering Auschwitz. It makes what happened inside the camp sound almost noble, but there was nothing noble about the type of work done in Auschwitz, and it had nothing to do with freedom. That was made very clear throughout this film. It was, perhaps, the closest thing to hell that any of the inmates could have possibly imagined. Many died, and those who survived were scarred for life, left empty by the experience. The last scene, I thought, portrayed this quite hauntingly, as Arouch - who survived - wanders lost and aimless away from the camp after liberation, not knowing where he was going or what he would find. His story has a "happy" ending filled with marriage and children and grandchildren, but how happy could it have really been, all things considered.
This isn't the best movie about the Holocaust ever made, but it is one that stays with the viewer, and it's one that provides a gripping portrayal of life inside perhaps the most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps. (8/10)