THE PHOTOGRAPHER OF MAUTHAUSEN. (2018) DIRECTED BY MAR TARGARONA. STARRING MARIO CASAS. REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. © This is a superb film, the kind of concentration camp movie that looks so real you can hardly believe it’s a movie and not actual documentary footage. It’s the story of Francisco Boix, a young Spanish Republican and communist who was an inmate of Mauthausen concentration camp between January 1941 and the time of liberation in May 1945. Mauthausen, built in Austria after the annexation of that country in 1938, was the place where the Germans sent the bulk of their Spanish political prisoners, most of whom were being held in French camps when they fell into Nazi hands. When France capitulated to Germany in 1940, these prisoners were just handed over to the Nazis and many of them ended up in Mauthausen. Mauthausen was a pitiless camp, though the others weren’t exactly holiday camps and day spas! It was known for its gigantic quarry, featuring the ‘stairs of death,’ in which thousands of inmates were literally worked to death, carrying huge slabs of rock up and down the gargantuan staircase, the rock which was used in many Third Reich monuments. There were many ways to die in Mauthausen, some of which are named in the film. Being worked to death on poor rations, as we’ve just mentioned. Gas chambers and gas van. (Our photographer was meant to die in one of these vans, but a vital part of the mechanism, the part through which the gas was filtered, had been disabled, presumably by inmates.) Torture. Starvation. Exposure, standing naked on the parade ground in all weathers. Cold showers in winter. It was a dreadful place, a true hell on earth. Francisco arrived at the camp aged just twenty. He could speak German and therefore worked first as a translator, but he graduated from here to working in the camp’s photography laboratory, under Paul Ricken of the SS. Ricken documented camp life and was creating a photographic memorial to the Third Reich, and Francisco was an invaluable help to him in this work, to the point that Ricken rewarded him with visits to the camp brothel, where one could have sex with female prisoners who were dead behind the eyes after what they’d been through. Unknown to Ricken, however, Francisco was hard at work creating his own memorial; a testament to the evils and atrocities the Nazis had committed in Mauthausen. At great personal risk to himself, he secreted these negatives in different hiding places for retrieval after the war. He even recruited various prisoners he thought he could trust to hide and hold more negatives for him. ‘They’ll never believe us otherwise,’ he kept telling people. ‘Without proof, no-one will believe what happened here.’ Throughout the bloody history of the concentration camps, we have testaments from many different prisoners who kept records, as best they could, by means of their art. Some composed poems or songs, those with access to art materials drew pictures, and Francisco took his photographs. Sometimes they dug holes to hide these diaries or drawings, and, years after the war ended, their memories and records were still being unearthed and added to the massive canon of proof that the concentration camps happened, that the Holocaust happened, that the brutal deaths of millions of innocent people happened. No matter what the deniers say… In one scene, Francisco loses his temper and beats up his boss, Ricken, accusing him of being a dirty, disgusting voyeur who gets his kicks out of photographing death, the dead and the dying, such as the grotesque hanging that had just taken place on the camp parade, accompanied by the sick and obscene sense of the theatrical so beloved of the Nazis. Francisco is tortured as a result of this attack, and told to give up his precious negatives. He manages to hang on just long enough for the SS to flee the camp because they know the war is lost and the jig is up. Francisco goes on doing what he does best, taking pictures, documenting camp life, bearing tangible witness to what happened there. After the Nazis lost the battle of Stalingrad, the SS in Mauthausen- and other camps- are told to destroy any photographic evidence they have of the camps, in particular, any evidence of bigwigs like Himmler and Kaltenbrunner having ever been there. Later on, a little closer to the end, even things like evidence of the equipment of death at places like Auschwitz were ordered to be dismantled. Crematoria, the chimneys, the gas ovens, written records of who was murdered and when, log books. Francisco has photographic proof of Himmler, the former chicken farmer, the little grinning Reichsfuhrer with the receding hairline and the little glinty specs, actually ascending the notorious ‘stairs of death’ in Mauthausen, chatting and laughing away with the accompanying SS men. At the trials that took place after the war, Francisco is able to stand up and point to people he saw there, in the camp, although of course Himmler had committed suicide early on and thus escaped all earthly justice. Tragically, Francisco never recovers- how could you, anyway- from what he’s seen and experienced, and he dies of kidney failure at age thirty, but not before he’s given his photographs to the world as a permanent legacy. I only took pictures, whinges Ricken to Francisco when the war ends. I just took pictures. Yes, Ricken, you did, of the deaths, the hangings, the bodies of the suicides on the electric fence, the gas chambers and the gas vans, the ‘scientific’ experiments on the prisoners like our poor friend the dwarf who were ‘different,’ and you did nothing. Nothing at all to prevent the ill-treatment and murder of the inmates in your care. We’re not told what happens to Ricken after the war. Like a lot of former Nazis, he probably died in his bed at age ninety after having a successful re-invention as a pub landlord or the owner of a lovely Bed and Breakfast, having managed for years to convince himself and others, his loving family included, that he hadn’t really been a Nazi at all and he’d personally never killed anyone, so he had nothing to reproach himself with. The people who knew him in his re-incarnation as a private citizen will say you couldn’t meet a nicer, kinder more compassionate individual if you walked the length and breadth of the land, and his headstone probably reads, Beloved Husband and Devoted Father of Whoever. But Francisco Boix’s photographic testament still exists to give the lie to such flannel. Amen to that.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Vampirology. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
Her debut romantic fiction novel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books:
The sequel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS LATER,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books: