No matter how many Holocaust docus get made, there will always be a need for the individual, heartbreaking stories of the survivors, as evidenced by “I Only Wanted to Live.” Editing down hundreds of hours of testimony collected by Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation, helmer Mimmo Calopresti (“Happiness Costs Nothing”) crafts a simple, straightforward and devastating portrait of nine Italian Jews deported to Auschwitz, each recounting wrenching memories with searing clarity. Certainly a must for schools and Jewish fests, docu could reach broader auds through PBS and cable.
In 2004 Calopresti helmed “Where Is Auschwitz?”, a one hour docu about a group of Roman students on a school trip to the infamous death camp. Where that pic repped a basic outline of events, a sort of “Holocaust 101,” current work relies on the testimony of survivors, interspersed with archival footage, to bring home the unfathomable human toll far more effectively.
Docu briefly mentions the hardships endured by Jewish families after the promulgation of Mussolini’s infamous racial laws in 1938, quickly moving on to the Nazi invasion and the sweeping deportations that followed in 1943. The accounts that follow are told with a chilling intensity of detail, and while some elements may overlap with stories described in other docus, each one remains a unique and necessary testimony to genocide.
Among the group is Liliana Segre, 13 when she and her father tried escaping over the Swiss border before being turned back by a callous guard and then rounded up for deportation. Shlomo Venezia talks about forced work at the crematoriums, where he had to separate and shave the bodies after the gas showers. Settimia Spizzichino, with remarkable directness, discusses the tortures she endured as a guinea pig under Josef Mengele’s barbarous experiments. Arminio Wachsberger recalls Mengele’s cold explanation for why his wife and daughter were murdered.
“We’ll always be there, at Auschwitz,” says Nedo Fiano, the lone member of his family to make it out of the camps. Interviewees display photos of their murdered relatives, speaking of forced separations, intense hunger, and the stupefaction accompanying liberation. Calopresti understands the need for visual reminders, including appropriately horrific still and moving images of the camps with a judicious but unblinking approach.
Changing the English-language title would prevent docu from sounding too much like a Susan Hayward meller. Subtitles need some improvement, especially when untranslated text appears while voices are heard.