It seems unimaginable: a relationship driven more by affection than the dynamics of power between a Jewish prisoner and an Austrian SS officer at Auschwitz? But the taboo romance between beautiful, young Slovak inmate Helena Citron and her not-much-older captor Franz Wunsch is superbly documented in the fascinating “Love It Was Not” from Israeli helmer Maya Sarfaty. The film takes a deeper dive into the subject of “The Most Beautiful Woman,” Sarfaty’s 2016 student Academy Award winner. She uses a chorus of voices as well as artfully deployed archival photos and footage to show the liaison’s repercussions on the couple’s lives and those of their families.
The result of long years of research, “Love It Was Not” is remarkable not only for its unusual central story and unique creative execution, but also for its extensive eyewitness testimonies. Sarfaty combed the archives of Israel’s Yad Vashem and Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, looking for recordings of women indexed as workers in the “Kanada” facility at Auschwitz and listening for mentions of Helena and Franz in their personal survival stories. She was also able to locate and personally interview seven remarkably articulate women, aged around 90, whose memories astound. Their testimony both complements and provides counterpoint to the recollections of Helena, her sister Roza and Wunsch. Although these latter three died before Sarfaty began her film, she was able to access interview footage made during their lifetimes that she weaves in.
Both narratively and stylistically, the film begins with a photograph. It’s a picture of Helena at Auschwitz, clad in prisoner’s stripes, but looking surprisingly healthy, and smiling at the camera. The shot was taken by Wunsch. His daughter Dagmar reveals that he made multiple copies of that photo so he could cut it up and place Helena in different clothing and more pleasant surroundings. Inspired by this, director Sarfaty makes brilliant use of a more complex photomontage technique to illustrate dramatic events within the story.
In March 1942, the first transport of women and girls — nearly 1,000 of them from all over Slovakia — arrived at what was then the construction site of the Auschwitz extermination camp. Among them was Helena, the daughter of a cantor, who had once dreamed of a career as a performer. As she and the survivors describe their dehumanizing experiences as we see period photographs and newsreel footage in which cut-out photos of Helena are inserted.
After being initially assigned to dangerous work on a demolition crew, Helena catches a lucky break in December 1942 with a job in “Kanada,” the storeroom of personal items belonging to those who were gassed. There, she and the other women sorting through the suitcases were sometimes able to consume food they found or take warmer clothing or shoes. And it’s there that she was chosen to sing at a birthday party for the 20-year-old Wunsch, one of the SS men in charge of the “Kanada” operation.
In Helena’s telling, after she performs the German song “Love It Was Not” with tears streaming down her face, Wunsch asks her politely (“like a human being”) to sing it again. That moment marks the beginning of a dangerous, forbidden relationship that could have meant death for them both.
In spite of the need for secrecy, Helena’s camp peers were well aware of something going on as the pair furtively slipped each other notes. As one survivor observes, “He loved her to the point of madness.” Helena claims that she was able to save many people thanks to him. And certainly, Wunsch saved her life multiple times, including when she contracted typhus, setting up a bed for her in “Kanada” so he could monitor her care.
Following a harrowing investigation by the camp’s “political department” when someone informs on them, Helena’s story takes yet another dramatic turn in 1944, when her older sister Roza arrives at Auschwitz with her husband and two young children. The women share recollections of Wunsch’s last-minute rescue of Roza from the changing area outside the putative shower room. But their discussions of his inability to save Roza’s children are almost unbearably poignant.
When the camp is evacuated in 1945, Wunsch supplies Helena and Roza with warm clothing before he is dispatched to the front. Although he tries to find Helena for several years after the war, it’s the last she sees of him until 1972 when she flies to Austria with other survivors to testify at his trial for war crimes.
Among the many strengths of this superbly assembled film is the way Sarfaty makes clear the ever-present pressures of Helena’s situation. In Auschwitz, some envied her position and protector. Later, in Israel, she is investigated as a possible collaborator. When she is summoned to provide evidence in Wunsch’s case, it’s not as simple as trying to save the man who saved her or to testify as a proud Jew against the brutal Nazi he was. Likewise, viewers are able to see Wunsch as both cruel and severe in his work and a man of compassion and tenderness, sincere in his love for Helena. On the tech side, kudos are due to Sharon Yaish’s precise cutting, Ayelet Albenda and Shlomit Gopher’s painstaking photo montage work and Paul Gallister’s evocative but sparsely used tonal score.
Lastly, a footnote: Austrian producer Kurt Langbein is the son of Hermann Langbein, a non-Jewish resistance fighter and Auschwitz survivor, who, along with Simon Wiesenthal, led the struggle to bring to trial Austrian SS who served in the camps, including Franz Wunsch.