There are countless Holocaust films on Netflix or otherwise, but what makes The Photographer of Mauthausen unique and meaningful is director Mar Targarona’s focus on the factual account of the Spanish in the Austrian concentration camp of Mauthausen.
There were, according to Targarona, approximately 7,500 Spanish in Mauthausen, only 2,000 of whom survived. Francesc Boix (Mario Casas), a 20-year old Catalan communist, is taught photography by SS Paul Ricken (Richard van Weyden), the camp photographer. Boix recognizes the horrors occurring at the camp. As word spreads of approaching liberating forces, the Nazi hierarchy orders destruction of the evidence. Boix, with his fellow prisoners, unleashes a plan to stash film negatives and protect the truth.
The film, in Spanish and German with English subtitles, assumes that the viewer has a basic understanding of the brutality of the concentration camps, although Targarona doesn’t let you forget. As Tess Cagle writes for The Daily Dot, “The Mauthausen concentration camp was one of the largest of its kind during World War II, where almost 320,000 inmates died from either extreme slave labor or inside a gas chamber.” The film is, as can be expected, dark and cold, both atmospherically and emotionally.
Transcending the ruthlessness of systematic murder and individual callousness, Targarona builds the complexity of her characters to tell an exceptional story against the backdrop of unrelenting horror. Boix was, as Targarona states during an interview with Variety, “a friendly guy, a survivor, mischievous and smart with a bit of arrogance and self-assuredness.” Marios Casas lost 40 pounds to play the part.
In one scene, Boix, in conversation with his SS boss, states, “I prefer taking pictures of reality.” Ricken responds: “Reality doesn’t exist, Franz. It all depends on the point of view. Don’t forget it.” This notion of a manufactured reality, from the perspective of the SS, is at the heart of the film. For Boix and his fellow prisoners, there is a single, recorded reality, depicted in the photographs of mass murder.
The purpose of the prisoner’s existence—their meaning as human beings—becomes embedded in exposing the truth. And this is especially true for Boix. For Ricken, however, reality is easily directed: “Some pictures,” he says to Boix, “have to be touched up. Some others, only the staging. Human beings are malleable.”
Targarona made a passionate decision to produce the film in color: “The director of photography Aitor Mantxola and I were very clear: we wanted a realistic image, true and with great quality. All the shots are precise, complex, and the handheld camera is nonexistent. Art director Rosa Ros (who is very detail-oriented, very rigorous) worked closely with Mantxola and has done an excellent job.”
Approximately 2000 negatives were kept out of the incinerator. These photographs were paramount in the Nuremberg Trials and convictions after the war.