The Tattooist of Auschwitz – Season 1 Episode 1 Recap & Review

Episode 1

Episode 1 of The Tattooist of Auschwitz begins in Melbourne, 2003. An old man shuffles around his apartment, memories of the past flickering in like a bad dream. These memories happen to be of his time within the holocaust camps and the man in question is Lali Sokolov. He’s a survivor of the holocaust and this horrific nightmare is hard to shake, as he turns to see a figure before him, dressed in striped pyjamas and smiling sadly.

As tears well up in his eyes, memories of a man (Lali himself) being led to the gas chambers filters in, past the women and children, and a woman whom we later find out is important to the story… but not yet.

Back in 2003, Lali Sokolov has hired a woman called Heather to write his life story. She’s immediately questioned by Lali, who learns that she’s not Jewish. “I don’t have long,” Lali says, referencing his time left on the planet. Heather laughs awkwardly, as they settle in and prepare for what’s to follow.

And this story, as we soon find out, is a love story. Surprisingly it begins in Slovakia 1942. Out in the streets with a local girl, Lali watches as a couple of soldiers beat a kid in the street. This is part of the new restrictions in place against Jews, the place he calls his home, which is slowly becoming a twisted, xenophobic shadow of its former self. Along with losing their jobs and having to wear stars, the Jews are beaten in the streets for missing curfews.

Lali’s girlfriend is one of the casualties here, as she unfortunately doesn’t show up when she’s scheduled to. Lali is left on his own, contemplating what could have been. Things start to tighten up too, with the Slovakian government demanding that one person from each Jewish household register for “work duty.”

Lali undercuts his older brother and decides he should go given he doesn’t have a family or prospects. He makes up an excuse, saying he’s been “getting soft” while living in the city and this is a good opportunity for him. However, they’re certainly not disillusioned over what this work duty is. It’s bad news. Rumours have been swirling but Lali doesn’t disclose what these are to his family, as they resign to the fact Lali is leaving – and protecting the family by doing so too.

He says goodbye to everyone at the station and kisses them goodbye. In the present, an old Lali wishes he could go back to this moment and rewrite history, but we do hear him make a promise to his ma – he promises to find love. Before he gets on the train, one of the officers – Boris – shows up and quizzes what Lali’s doing. He knows exactly what’s going to happen here and his expression narrows, fear in his eyes. He implores Lali to run.

Lali doesn’t, of course, and instead, all these Jewish men and women are forced into cramped conditions, packed into the carriages like sardines.

When the train eventually stops after what seems like forever, Lali is concerned. All of these suitcases and belongings are just pushed on the side, as they’re herded into the work camp. On the iron gates overhead, the words “arbeit macht frei” can be seen. This roughly translates to “Work makes one free”. And given these guys are in Auschwitz, that’s a pretty disgusting bit of foreshadowing.

The men and women are separated, with the men forced to strip down. Lali steps forward to save the life of a kid in front who hesitates, and after being tattooed with his number, they’re loaded onto trucks and taken away from the processing plant. At the camps, the men are all squeezed into their tight bunks but Lali can’t sleep. Instead, he heads out at night and watches as 3 of the Jewish men, sitting on a bench, are shot dead by an SS officer passing by.

The officer has no remorse or second thought over what he’s doing. Remember this guy, this is Stefan Baretzki, and as we see across the season, he’ll become an important part of Lali’s story.

Lali remembers the morning drill, including being forced to remove their caps and work flat-out; back-breaking manual labour. The thing is, they’re basically making their own camp, a huge, sprawling settlement for all the Jewish men and women to come to work… and die.

While up on the rooftop, helping out a contracted builder, Lali watches as truck after truck full of dead bodies are taken out into the distance. The smell is overbearing, and Lali realizes what this is now, given they can’t burn the bodies fast enough (according to the builder anyway). He vomits off the side of the building as his stomach turns.

Illness is a death sentence here, and thankfully some of the men manage to cause a distraction and help Lali as he’s taken into the bunks and allowed to sleep, away from the prying eyes of the guards. It seems to do the trick, and he manages to get better.

The tattooist from earlier, Pepan, shows and offers Lali a chance to survive this place. Specifically, to help him tattoo other prisoners given there will be more incoming in the future. Although he initially says no, given it’s survival of the fittest and he sees first-hand the horrors of Auschwitz, he decides to take the job.

Lali is taken away from the main camp and into far better conditioned quarters. I mean, it’s not ideal but given he’s working for the SS now, he’s going to need all the protection he can get. And guess who his commanding officer is? Yep, its Stefan Baretzki.

It doesn’t take long before he’s forced into tattooing other inmates… and the reward is that he gets a decent amount of food. Pepan looks out for him, and Lali heads back to his old barracks, giving his old friends whatever food he can. Unfortunately, Aaron – the boy whom Lali saved before by cutting ahead in the tattooing line – is taken away that afternoon. Specifically, to the gas chamber.

Although Lali initially claims to Heather that he “doesn’t remember” why, the fact is, they took Aaron instead of him because Lali took his number at processing. Lali has basically gaslit himself into believing he doesn’t remember the reason why.

Remember the scene from the opening of the episode? Well, we return here as Lali is taken down to the chambers by Stefan to check the tattoos of inmates that have been killed. He’s the one who gave them the tattoos in the first place. He checks over the numbers – a 3 and an 8 – retorting this to Stefan before walking out. On the way, the officer laughs at him, claiming that he’s the only Jewish man that’s walked into the gas chambers and walked back out and lived to tell the tale.

Lali’s promise to his mum though seems to come to fruition, given he ends up meeting a fateful character that will become a figurehead with the series as we proceed. This woman, Gita, sits down while Lali’s tattooing and looks him deep in the eye. There’s definite chemistry there and Lali is taken aback by her surprising humour; a bright spark in what’s otherwise a very dour and horrific experience.

The Episode Review

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a harrowing story and it’s not going to be an easy one to binge. It’s a bleak reminder of the worst aspects of humanity, and that final shot, showing the sheer size of Auschwitz, is enough to make your skin crawl.

The production design overall is good, and the idea of Lali reconfronting the ghosts of his past as an old man, alongside those stark portraits of those men and women who have lost their lives in Auschwitz, is a really simple but effective inclusion.

With all episodes releasing at once, we’ll have to wait and see what this one has in store for us next.


Next Episode

Expect A Full Season Write-Up When This Season Concludes!
  • Episode Rating

Leave a comment