In a strong contender for Poland’s Academy Awards submission, Holocaust history is brought to life through the story of Tadeusz ‘Teddi’ Pietrzykowski. Writer and director Maciej Barczewski spares little attention to environmental detail in his biopic while whittling the narrative to the boxer’s athletics within the concentration camp.
Barczewski is far from the first to recount and dramatise the story of Tadeusz Pietrzykowski. The bantamweight boxer turned Polish resistance fighter known as ‘Teddi’ has been the subject of at least two full-length biographies and two feature films prior to The Champion of Auschwitz. While Barczewski does not assume any viewer familiarity with Pietrzykowski, his vision starts from the first mass transport to Auschwitz rather than the Siege of Warsaw (this event, which led to Pietrzykowski’s capture and imprisonment, is seen only in abstract flashbacks). Pietrzykowski (portrayed here by Piotr Głowacki) and his fellow prisoners hear their fate upon arrival: they will build the camp, and then they will die. As a non-Jewish, non-clergy rebel, Pietrzykowski may last the longest at three months.
Fate, however, has other plans. At what should be his execution, he is recognised as a boxer by a guard who saw him fight years ago. A desperate, informal match for the entertainment of the camp bosses leads to extra rations, and soon Pietrzykowski is back in the ring to win bread for his fellow inmates. Piotr Głowacki captures the boxer’s constant watchfulness. He portrays Pietrzykowski’s survival as half instinctual, half calculated, and never overplays either factor. It is a fully committed physical performance conveyed with eyes and posture over words.
At a tight 85 minutes, The Champion of Auschwitz necessarily omits several factual and apocryphal chapters of Pietrzykowski’s life—notably many of his early resistance and sabotage work inside Auschwitz before he began boxing. The emotional crux of the film centres around his friendship with the teenage Janek (Jan Szydlowski), who evades an early death through poetry rather than athletics. Their friendship unfolds in nocturnal, half-shadowed moments when guards are absent, and the quiet contrasts sharply with the sound of pickaxes, shouting, gunshots pervading the daylight hours.
The detailed, tactile production design spares no grim detail of the concentration camp existence. Sets are almost uniformly grey, with overcast days and only the yellow oil lamps illuminating nighttime scenes. The orchestral soundtrack veers towards the overblown, undercutting the tragic peaks with sentimentality. This speaks to a larger ambiguity at the heart of The Champion of Auschwitz: the mundane extremity of Nazi atrocities. The camp guards’ ambivalence towards casual cruelty comes through as unbelievably, irredeemably evil—a position that does not need nuance but which sets these horrors as distant rather than scarily re-creatable. The film, however, veers towards the common trap of over-humanisation through a guard’s child and sympathetic wife, whose probing questions reveal weaknesses in the eugenics-based Nazi agenda. The best scene may be a holiday concert, performed under the camp gallows, for the entertainment of guards and their families. Happy girls in curls and fur collars smile at the songs, and contented guards munch on sandwiches, and the reign of terror continues.
For viewers familiar and unfamiliar with the story of Teddi Pietrzykowski, The Champion of Auschwitz maintains genuine tension throughout. While sacrificing a wider picture of Auschwitz resistance movements, its tight focus on boxing hinges its stakes on a controlled, comprehensible match. The resulting cinema is compelling but thematically weak. A relentlessly unpleasant picture both saved and undercut by a sentimental streak of hope, the film is a solid dramatisation of one man’s struggle in the face of arbitrary horrors.
Words by Carmen Paddock
The Champion of Auschwitz is out in UK cinemas now
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