• Golden Globe Awards

The Auschwitz Report (Slovakia): Interview with Director Peter Bebjak and Star Noel Czuczor

The Auschwitz Report is based on the true story of German documents smuggled out of the titular concentration camp in April 1944, which proved the horrifying scale of the Third Reich’s attempted “Final Solution.” At the movie’s center is Noel Czuczor, who stars as Alfréd Wetzler, one of two men who, after more than a full year of meticulous escape planning, set off on a treacherous journey through mountains and underground tunnels.
Director Peter Bebjak’s skillfully crafted Holocaust drama is a work pulsing with dramatic immediacy, and not merely because of its subject matter – with visceral, superlative work from cinematographer Martin Ziaran and a muscular score from composer Mario Schneider which truly leans into its moments of inherent tension, The Auschwitz Report is a clarion cry for the importance of learning that past is prologue.
A Golden Globe Best Foreign Language Film submission as well as Slovakia’s Best International Feature entry for the Academy Awards, The Auschwitz Report will receive a commercial release in the United States via Samuel Goldwyn Films. We recently had a chance to connect with both Bebjak and Czuczor via email.
What was your first point of contact with Escape from Hell, Alfréd Wetzler’s memoir?
Peter Bebjak: I was introduced to the book by a Slovak actor years ago. He told me that it was an interesting story and that I should read it. It’s strange, but most people in Slovakia are not familiar with this story. It got forgotten – or, let me put it this way, the communist regime of the time wanted it to be forgotten. But what captivated me from the beginning was the almost documentary quality there was to it – the way Wetzler is talking about the things he endured as he escaped from the death camp. It is the story of a man who managed to escape because he had a mission – a mission to uncover the Auschwitz-Birkenau death machine and to carry the truth out. Together, Wetzler and (Rudolf) Vrba exposed exact numbers and exact information. And that’s also one of the reasons why I decided that their story cannot be left forgotten, not by anyone. 
What was the most challenging aspect of production? And what day wore on you the most?
Peter Bebjak: Not to forget why this was film being made in the first place – to have a clear vision, being sure about what I really want to say with it. But also to make sure that I will not abuse it and make it feel or seem like some kind of attraction. And then, of course, being there on set, watching the extras stand there, in their camp uniforms, watching them shake in that freezing cold, as we rolled and they started to run in their wooden clogs, the same ones the prisoners in the camps used to wear … in a moment like that you can’t help it but realize that no matter what you do, you will never be able to get close to what the actual prisoners must have felt, that sense of terror and dread. I felt so angry with mankind, for all the horrible things that we were and are able to do in the name of depraved ideology.
The problems of radical extremism and ethnic nationalism of course know no boundaries what were your thoughts, as someone from outside of the country, seeing the United States Capitol overrun on January 6 by protestors which included a certain percentage of people who associate their patriotism primarily with ethnic identity, including a man infamously photographed wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt?
Peter Bebjak: I’ll quote Václav Havel: “The disadvantage of democracy is that it ties the hands of those who mean it honestly, while it allows almost everything to those who do not take it seriously.” The most influential people in politics are usually those who create it. It’s their achievements, their rhetoric, their approach. If any of that is hateful there will always be people who will, maybe out of frustration, turn to politics like that. It’s happening everywhere in the world, where populism is the way of governance. And at times of crisis, economical or moral ones, people tend to take refuge in extreme ideologies. That’s how Hitler gained his power, and also how dictatorships are born.
What types of discussions did you have with cinematographer Martin Ziaran about the use of both subjective and handheld camerawork, to underscore the horrors of life at concentration camps?
Peter Bebjak: We wanted to allow the audiences to go through the same things that our main characters are going through, in a world where there are no standards or rules, a world where fear and death are your only companions, a world where you are weak, sick and powerless, a world that is mad. That is what we were trying to find and achieve.
Was the story of Alfréd Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba something with which you were familiar before tackling this role, and movie?
Noel Czuczor: No, I wasn’t. Actually, the first time I heard about these two men was from Peter Bebjak. He mentioned that he was developing a film based on their story while we were premiering the first film that we made together a few years back, and I couldn’t believe I never heard of them. Very soon I realized that most of the people in our country never heard of them either. I was stunned. There they were, cemented in time and history, achieving this impossible feat, yet the very nation they were also once a part of had forgotten about them – my generation especially. We never heard their names in history classes, we’ve never been told about them. It’s cruel and scarily fascinating, this human tendency to forget about the past.
I imagine you stayed away from watching any other World War II or Holocaust movies prior to beginning shooting, but do you have foundational memories of any other Holocaust films from your childhood movies that maybe exposed you to its history in a way that formal education didn’t or couldn’t?
Noel Czuczor: As I fell in love with movies very early in my childhood, they were often my way of getting information I would never get in school, just observing human beings, being a part of the stories. I was allowed to watch anything I wanted as long as it didn’t affect me in a negative way (not that I would ever admit to my mother if it did, I knew better). One day after school, at the local video store, I came across a film called Schindler’s List and I decided to watch it. I must have been eight or nine so I didn’t have much pre-existing knowledge about any of the horrors of World War II, and of course at that age I couldn’t understand all of the intricacies. But I will never forget about one particular scene – the one in the showers in Auschwitz-Birkenau. I will never forget that sense of dread, because even though I was just a child and I wasn’t ready or able to understand all of it, there was something universal, unmistakable and raw about that scene. It did not require any knowledge of history to understand what those women felt at that moment, what it all meant to be in a place like that. I will never forget that moment. A few years later I remember The Shop on Main Street and Bent making quite an impression on me. By then I was in my early teenage years, but the curiosity never left my mind, and I was able to understand more. It amazes me how little do we learn about World War II in history classes, considering that our country was very much a part of it all.
Did the physical transformation you went through, losing weight for your role, inform or change your process as an actor, in any unexpected manner?
Noel Czuczor: Actually, I found the physical part of the preparation to be the easier thing to do. Not that it was easy, or pleasant. It wasn’t. I lost 40 pounds for the part. But to me, losing weight was about determination and discipline. It was achievable – a strict diet and working out seven days a week does wonders. And of course, I knew it had to be done going in, and I did everything in my power to accomplish that without complaining. Finding the truthfulness was the harder part. As an actor, you always try to find the things you can relate to, no matter the differences between you and your character. But how can you, as a person relate to something like this, without actually having the experience? It felt impossible. And it was. 
I felt this burden of responsibility very clearly from the start. So, I read everything I could put my hands on, including Wetzler’s novel, and I watched documentaries, and survivor interviews. And besides visiting Auschwitz in person, I even had the chance to talk to the most incredible lady, an Auschwitz survivor, Miss Laura, who was 96 at the time. But not even all this information got me closer to fully understanding what it must have been like. I felt stuck for a long time – all of the things I learned were just building up inside of me. And then one day I returned to Wetzler’s book and I suddenly realized that it was all there – his every thought, every feeling, every doubt. And so, the book became this blueprint to me, a compass of sorts that helped me navigate through every single page of our script and the story we wanted to tell. It felt like coming full circle in the end, realizing that it was the willfulness, imagination and empathy that will get me where I needed to be. So, I used all the anxiety, all the hurt and hope I could find within me, and all the information I gathered, to show me the way. And in the end, even though I never really felt ready, I think I managed somehow. 
What does the prospect of international recognition for this film, from both the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, mean for you personally?
Noel Czuczor: There are two sides to that. There’s the side of the little boy in me (I know, I will be the cheesy European now, but so be it!) who every year, starting at seven or eight years old stayed up all night until the morning watching both the Golden Globes and the Oscars. Each year, on those two days, I stayed up until seven in the morning, watching the ceremony covered up in blankets on the sofa in the living room cheering for my favorites. It was my way of learning English and seeing the world I loved so much. Then in the morning I always argued with my mom, I was stubborn and always decided not to go to school because, of course, I was too tired to listen to someone trying to teach me something after I’ve been up all night. I always won that fight and I’m thankful that my mom always let me.
So, this side of me views this as something surreal and absolutely magical – as something that boy on the sofa would never even dream of, watching the screen each year, so late at night. That’s so cheesy, but so true. And then there’s the side of me being an adult. By now I understand how hard it is to make movies and how it is even harder to make them be seen. And the fact that our film is being considered for such honors – the very fact of that just makes me incredibly happy, because I witnessed the hard work every single one of us was putting in, trying to make this film what it is. It is a collective joy that cannot be described with words. And I really hope that it will help our film to be seen by audiences. Freedom cannot be taken for granted, even in this day and age. Our film reminds people of that. 
As a director who has worked both for television and film, what are your thoughts on streaming, and the future of theatrical distribution for challenging films like The Auschwitz Report? Does TV and streaming afford directors more opportunities?
Peter Bebjak: The theatrical experience has something streaming will never replace – atmosphere. I believe movie theaters will survive, because we will always seek that act of sharing, being there inside a movie theater with other people, watching a film together. The big screen, the sound, the enhanced and multiplied experience – a movie theater is the thing that makes the art of cinema all stand out. This day and age favor streaming platforms, but I see them as birds of prey. They are making us all be alert and look for new ways, new forms, formats, new stories. I guess streaming will eventually find its own cinematic style. And I think that both these worlds will survive. And I hope they will not parasitize each other.