‘The Photographer of Mauthausen’: Spanish Refugee and POW to Nuremberg Witness ☆☆☆☆

“The Photographer of Mauthausen” (“El fotógrafo de Mauthausen“) is an elegantly solemn 2018 Spanish biographical film that should be seen by every student of history and photography. Currently, the film is streaming on Netflix, but has nudity (male), violence and troubling issues of race, ethnicity and medical ethics as it recounts the story of Francisco Boix.

Boix was born in Barcelona, but as a Spanish Republican, he was living in exile in France (after a civil war). The movie tells us that many ended up in refugee camps, people without a country–neither French nor Spanish. Francisco Franco established a dictatorship in Spain from 1936 to 1975 (when Franco died).

From the beginning, we see a group of men and boys trudging through the foggy gloom and entering Mauthausen where, we’re told, everything is meant to impress. The structure of crisp blocks of stone–like a modern castle with a beautiful black stone bird of war perched above the main gate, houses prisoners who are first separated from their luggage, shaved of their hair and then divided into groups–one that dies and another that is expected to only live a few weeks longer. They are first overseen by their own, kapos, or prisoners who are given some crude instrument to beat their fellows. Our narrator, Boix (Mario Casas),  sees them as murderers and rapists who are spoiled by the SS guards. In truth, the SS chose from criminals elements as their enforcers. In Mauthausen there are “35” ways of dying and we’ll see some of them as well as the ways, including the “Stairs of Death” and the gassing vans. The SS targeted the political activists and others seen as helping the resistance in what would be called the “night and fog” directive from Hitler (“Nacht und Nebel) who would disappear.

The Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp complex was on a hill above the town of Mauthausen and consisted of a Mauthausen main camp and three Gusen concentration camps. Although it was one of the first massive camps, Mauthausen was one of the last camps liberated and now serves as a museum. The camp commandant, Franz Zierels (Stefan Weinert), 39, would die in Gusen which had by then been converted into a hospital.

Although this film is in color, the hues are predominately drab greens and grey. When bright colors are introduced in a cabaret act or a party, there result is jolting. And yet there is more because death is everywhere, inescapable and witnessed by citizens who are too afraid to do anything.  Boix becomes determined to preserve records of the camps. Having been a photographer, he finds work in Mauthausen as part of the SS Photographic Service, recording the inmates, developing the film and printing photos taken by the SS and he begins to secretly stow away the negatives.

The movie follows Boix until just after the liberation o Mauthausen and shows a photo of the real Box at the International Military Tribunal Nuremberg Trials (20 November 1945 to 1 October 1946), when Boix would bring 20,000 negatives and testify against the war criminals.

Boix would only live a few more years, working as a reporter in Paris from 1945 to 1951 when he died of kidney failure at age 30. I hadn’t known of the Spanish imprisoned by the Nazis nor how instrumental one had been in the testimony against the Nazis. At the Gaudí Awards in 2019, the film was nominated for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Score and Best Visual Effects, and won for Best Makeup and Hairstyles, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction and Best Production Manager.

This is a sensitive mournful movie with a carefully controlled revelation of brutality; the movie reminds us of the how easily humanity is lost and how heroes can be made in different ways.

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