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‘We Can Choose to Love Rather Than Hate’: Led by Harvey Keitel and Melanie Lynskey, ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ Finds Love in a Hopeless Place

Upcoming six-part series “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” is set in one of the most infamous concentration camps in history. And yet, “it’s a love story.”

“When Lali says that, you are supposed to question his words. But they did meet there, they did fall in love, they did survive and went on to live in Australia. They had a son and lived well into their 80s. In finding each other, they found a reason to survive,” says executive producer Claire Mundell.

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A Synchronicity Films production in association with Sky Studios and All3Media International, “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” is a Sky and Peacock Originals series, based on the bestselling novel by Heather Morris. Featuring Harvey Keitel and Melanie Lynskey, it tells the true story of Holocaust survivors Lali and Gita Sokolov.

When Lali (Jonah Hauer-King) is deported to Auschwitz in 1942, he becomes one of the camp’s tattooists, inking identification numbers onto prisoners’ arms under the watchful eye of Nazi SS officer (Jonas Nay). That’s how he meets Gita (Anna Próchniak). Around 60 years later, older Lali (Keitel) tells his story to Heather (Lynskey).

“Their love is an act of defiance. It says: ‘You can’t take my humanity away from me’,” adds Mundell, who optioned the book back in 2018.

“Antisemitism was on the rise then as well, with surveys detailing how many young people weren’t fully aware of the Holocaust. It’s even more pronounced today. Hopefully, this story can remind people that we can choose to love rather than hate.”

Jonah Hauer-King as Lali Sokolov & Anna Próchniak as Gita Furman in Auschwitz.
Jonah Hauer-King as Lali Sokolov & Anna Próchniak as Gita Furman in Auschwitz.

Landing the right tone was crucial, she admits.

“We don’t shy away from very distressing material. But for me, that darkness and horror only accentuate the miraculous nature of their love. I have no doubt that’s why so many people have read the book. This couple gave each other hope and in telling his story, Lali gives it to us.”

“The Tattooist of Auschwitz” – shot mostly in Slovakia, where the couple was from – is directed by Tali Shalom-Ezer, while Jacquelin Perske serves as executive producer and lead writer. Serena Thompson executive produces for Sky Studios.

After her six-year journey trying to bring the series to life, Mundell hopes it will move audiences.

“It certainly moved me. It’s a huge, epic story, so how the hell do you take that on and do it justice? It felt like a big challenge, but at Synchronicity, we love projects that are inspired by real life and have something important to say.”

The company is also behind “The Cry” about postnatal depression, shown at Series Mania in 2019, and “Mayflies” about a man considering euthanasia.

Harvey Keitel was the only actor for the role, she stresses.

“We only offered it to him. I know how much work he put into researching Lali and how important it was for him to convey a survivor. There are so few of them left and some never discussed their past. Even with their families.”

Lynskey, fresh off “Yellowjackets” and a stint on “The Last of Us,” took on social worker-turned-writer Heather Morris.

“We were looking for an actor who could convey empathy, curiosity, resilience and the kind of humanity the real Heather Morris has. When she met Lali, she was in her early ‘50s. She had an interest in writing, but always left that to the side. It became the last significant relationship of his life, really,” observes Mundell.

“In our society, we are very agist. We disregard elderly people and their wisdom. Jacquelin, our lead writer, was very intrigued by the book’s foreword, where Heather described her meeting with Lali.”

“Instead of just regarding it as a period piece, [adding it] allowed the audience to understand it really happened to this man. This trauma never left him: It was with him every moment of every day. In a way, what they were doing was like therapy. In the story, Heather represents all of us.”

Harvey Keitel as Lali Sokolov and Melanie Lynskey as Heather Morris walking through the streets of Melbourne.
Harvey Keitel as Lali Sokolov and Melanie Lynskey as Heather Morris walking through the streets of Melbourne.

Already familiar with the book, other cast and crew members also came knocking, starting with “The Little Mermaid” star Jonah Hauer-King and a certain Oscar-winning composer.

“Jonah had read it in 2018 and tried to get the rights, I think. I went to lunch with him, intending to pitch him the project. Instead, he was pitching himself to me. Hans Zimmer was no different. People ask me: ‘How did you get Hans?!’ They have blown us away with what they have done.”

The priority was to put “real humanity and directness into the statistics,” also through multiple close-ups of actors playing those who never left Auschwitz.

“It’s a particularly striking feature of the show. Sometimes, if you just look at the numbers, it numbs you. Having these faces throughout the series – young people, old people and children, looking directly at us – is an appeal to the audience: ‘Remember.’ Behind every statistic is a human being.”

“The Tattooist of Auschwitz” will be available on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW in the U.K., and Peacock in the U.S., from May 2. NBCUniversal Global TV Distribution and All3Media International are jointly handling international sales.

“They are hardly any territories we haven’t sold it to,” admits Mundell.

“I made a promise to Heather we would do everything in our power to get this story out to the biggest possible audience, in the most respectful way. I am carrying the baton now, passed on by Heather. Before, she made the same promise to Lali.”

Jonah Hauer-King as Lali Sokolov meets Anna Próchniak as Gita Furman for the first time.
Jonah Hauer-King as Lali Sokolov meets Anna Próchniak as Gita Furman for the first time.

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