Interview with Maciej Barczewski the director of The Champion of Auschwitz a historical portrayal of Prisoner 77 and his fight for survival in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland during the 2nd World War, in cinemas from 3rd September.
Please introduce yourself and your film
Hello I’m Maciej Barczewski the director of The Champion of Auschwitz the film about Tadeusz Pietrzykowski the prisoner of Auschwitz concentration camp, who fought for his life with his fists, literally in the camp. It’s a true story about a true character, a former bantamweight boxing champion of Warsaw in 1937.
How did the story come to your attention?
I was reading one of the stories of Tadeusz Borowski, a famous Polish writer, who was a prisoner of Auschwitz and wrote a number of stories on this subject and in one of his stories he mentioned prisoner, number 77, who boxed the Germans in the camp, and that short sentence seemed very intriguing to me because the situation of a prisoner at the concentration camp whose literally beating Nazis seemed really intriguing. So I searched who was the prisoner number 77. It turned out he was one of the very first prisoners of the Auschwitz camp who came in the first transported prisoners, then I contacted his family, his daughter, his wife and it turned out his incredible story hasn’t been turned into film yet. So I decided that I needed to be the person who brings this incredible story to screens.
Why did you want to make the film?
Well first of all I’m familiar with this subject matter because my grandfather was a prisoner of Auschwitz for 3 years and second of all because this particular story in my opinion had and has great cinematic potential. It’s symbolic in its nature, like David and Goliath. A biblical story. Someone who is weak, who has not a chance of winning and surviving, wins and survives in the worst place in the universe, in the darkest of times. So that appealed to me a lot. The sole notion that even if we face the darkest of circumstances in our lives, we should never abandon hope because always there is a chance that we might win and survive, just like Teddy.
How did you achieve the cinematography in the boxing ring?
As a member of the audience I usually find watching people beating each other on the screen quite boring. So my assumption was to show these fights just if we were one of the prisoners standing near the ring and experiencing it first-hand. It was quite difficult actually because we were aware that if we were to show boxing as it looked like pre-war, for the contemporary audience, it would look artificial because boxing was much different back then. So we had to combine some elements of modern contemporary boxing that looks familiar for the audience with some elements of this pre-war boxing that is something different. I wanted these fights to be very intense and not too long because that’s how they look quite often in reality. Actually we just wanted to make them look as real as possible.
How much preparation went into the film?
The training of the actors took almost a year and a half. We were able to shoot all the fights without stunt doubles and actually even without any cuts. If we wanted to show the whole fight in one cut we could do that, we had such shots.
The longest preparation time was the physical preparation of the actors in particular of Piotr Glowacki, who played Teddy. He had to train for 14 months, 6 times per week and that of course included dieting, physical training, building his muscle mass and also boxing training, so that we would not need to involve stunt doubles or that he would be able to look convincing as the people’s boxing champion. So actually he has lost more than 30lbs for this role and he changed his body utterly, he started to move like a boxing champion, his whole physical transformation helped a lot to build this character.
Teddy is a small bantamweight. How did you cast him?
What some people advised me, of course we are casting a boxer he needs to be athletic, young, strong guy with a broken nose. But I read about Teddy and he looked nothing like that. He was relatively short, somewhat thin, somebody who actually you would not notice when passing by, but when you looked in his eyes you could see two clenched fists and Piotr actually is that kind of actor whose not very tall, he was not very athletic back then, but when you looked in his eyes you could see fire burning and that was something that I thought I needed to portray in this character convincingly on screen and I don’t think I was wrong.
How did you get the location?
We had to build a replica of the Auschwitz camp because I think since the 1990s the museum of Auschwitz does not allow any filming done on the grounds of the museum and it is completely understandable. So we built our set designs near Warsaw.
How did you choose what themes you wanted to include or exclude in the film?
Actually when you are making a film based on a real character, real stories it is always the most difficult challenge. What to include and what to abandon? What to change because when we are talking about narrative rules of a feature film that is 1 hour and a half long, it needs to have a beginning and an end. It always forces us to change some chronology of facts, leave some people behind, create some people for example as a symbol of some society or meet the protagonists needs. These are all the changes that we need to make in order to make an involving picture, right, because what matters most is not the adherence to the sole historical facts because if we did it like that the film would quickly become a boring history lesson. What’s most important is the emotional truth of the character. If we can feel what the main character feels what he has experienced and what he has learned from the whole situation that is something that works best within the realm of feature film making.
The lighting was atmospherically both dark but quite light. Was this something you focused on?
Perfect, you have read our intentions correctly because that was the main subject of my conversations with the director of photography, Plociennik, because this story for me is a story of the darkness and the light and the journey from this utter darkness to the light that we see in the very last scene during the credits with all the children. So in all the scenes we tried to convey this duality of light and shadow and darkness because when you read the memories of the former prisoners of the camp of course it was the most terrible place to be in the darkest of times but, for example, in the realm of their real personal interactions quite a lot of this light showed up. Their humanity, urging for happiness. So I tried to show this a bit in our film. In a way this contrasts, for example the contrast of support in the concentration camp and the doom that is happening at the very same time, in the very same place. So that was something quite interesting for me from a cinematic point of view.
The story was full of poignant symbolism. What were the main messages of the film?
It’s not up to me now to explain all the symbolism it’s up to the audience to read their own interpretation but as I mentioned the whole story in a way is mythological. It is like these Greek ancient heroes who are fighting with other deities. So, in a way I am aware that for contemporary audiences, for a young audience, times of the 2nd World War are as distant as Greek mythology right now because they don’t know, they were born in the 21st century. This is a distant history. So, in a way I hope that this film will tell them something about this dark period of human history but also will tell them that on the grounds of this darkness, life will prevail because it has prevailed actually after the war, so that is one of the messages that I tried to convey in this movie.
Were you happy with the outcome and would you change anything?
I’m happy. Of course there is always this question what would I do if I had much more money? But on the other hand I don’t think this story actually needs some tremendous war battles or anything, it is not about that. It’s about an extra ordinary man in a very unusual circumstance and what I was trying to do was to focus the whole narrative of the movie on our main character, what he experiences and for that purpose we don’t need millions of dollars to show tanks or battlefields or anything like that. So after all, I don’t think I would change anything, I think it works as it should.
Film: The Champion of Auschwitz
Director: Maciej Barczewski
Stars: Piotr Glowacki, Jan Szydlowski & Grzegorz Malecki
Genre: Drama, History, Biography
Run time: 1hr 31min