For anyone who found “Life is Beautiful’s” attempt to wring slapstick humor out of death camps distasteful, “Swimming in Auschwitz” offers a welcome corrective. Focusing on six female Holocaust survivors living in Los Angeles, Jon Kean’s powerfully modest docu invokes marvel not only at their ability to survive the horrors of the camp, but also to do so with humor and humanity intact. Pic was an audience favorite at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and opened May 2 in Los Angeles, though its lucid structure and brisk pace would make it ideal for broadcast.
“If you lost your sense of humor because of fear, you lost your mind,” is how one of the women describes her time in the infamous concentration camp, though parts of their stories feel like jokes at which only they could possibly laugh. One, who was given two left shoes upon her arrival, chuckles as she describes herself walking around the camp “like Chaplin.” Another brims with subversive glee when detailing how she and her mother would intentionally pass along defective parts while doing forced labor at a Nazi airplane factory.
The most striking anecdote, from which the film takes its title, comes from a survivor who, on a sweltering August day, impulsively decided to dive into the swimming pool set aside for Nazi guards. She seems as mystified as anyone as to why she would have done such a thing, and adds, in a near-deadpan, “For some reason nobody shot me.”
Yet director Kean hardly soft-peddles the sheer monstrosity of the experience: Every one of the six women lost family members in the camp, and none of them seem to view their survival as resulting from anything other than blind luck. It is a resolutely unfunny film, yet its ultimate effect is to evoke affection and reverence rather than dread and disgust. That all six women were able to emerge from the very nadir of modern history to become such amiable, witty matriarchs seems an act of superhuman resolve.
Deferring entirely to his subjects, Kean wisely eschews flashy filmmaking flourishes, with only newsreel footage and a map of Europe to supplement simple shots of the six women telling their stories.