Netflixable? A Polish boxer fights for his life, “The Champion (of Auschwitz)”

Every movie set during the Holocaust has some merit, especially those based on historical accounts of survivors. Anyone who lived through that needs to be celebrated, and those who didn’t must be remembered.

But not all concentration camp dramas are created equal.

“The Champion,” originally titled “The Champion of Auschwitz,” is about Polish boxer and “Inmate #77” at the death camp, Tadeusz “Teddy” Pietrzykowski, a Warsaw bantamweight imprisoned for fleeing the occupied country to re-join the Polish Army in exile. He survived the camps by fighting for the entertainment of the German Nazis. He was lionized in Poland and has been the subject of books and films there.

But one suspects the reason the Poles have venerated his story is at least in part because he wasn’t Jewish. And this facile, cliched and grievously limited-in-scope film biography doesn’t do him, his real story, the real tragedy or this genre of film any justice.

Pietrzykowski’s story is worth retelling because the real life details of it are fascinating and often inspiring, and because it’s worth remembering that the mass incarceration and slaughter widely known as The Holocaust wasn’t just about Jewish genocide.

Writer-director Maciej Barczewski’s debut feature looks right but never feels anything but contrived. He traffics in tropes, and trips himself up on details, glibly skipping through this story with seemingly the thinnest understanding of the real history and the facts of the event he’s working with.

A working “death camp” with “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” (“Work Makes You Free”) over its front gate doesn’t have its officers and functionaries bellowing “There is no exit other than through the chimney of the crematorium” to its new inmates.

Yes, they were sadists, evil on an almost inhuman level. But blurting that out, how would they keep order? Arrivals would freak out and probably even riot at times. Even the illusion of “showers” would be shattered and every single operation of the camp would be compromised and rendered much more difficult to manage.

We see the myth of the “urbane, cultured Nazi” officer trotted out for the umpteenth time, and watch SS officers and their families — overdressed swells — sitting in the snowy cold of a Polish winter watching an inmate — who should be shivering — give an OUTdoor winter piano recital.

Scene after scene here rings false, or at least hard to defend with facts.

Our boxer (Piotr Glowacki) tries to keep his head down, and being “the dodge king of Warsaw,” an expert at avoiding blows, has to help. But his background and skill are discovered in the most trite way, and he befriends the beefy, bullying but also imprisoned German capo (Piotr Witkowski) who used to be a boxer as well, and who becomes t”he champion’s” champion.

“We’ll fatten him up and he’ll fight the best boxers!”

Why do the Nazis listen to this Walter? Why is this German imprisoned at Auschwitz, as we’re never told? Why have a dwarf as ringmaster/bout announcer? Why stray so far from the simple, more colorful facts of Pietrzykowski’s story in grasping for an “entertaining” and “uplifting” concentration camp film?

The cruelty, summary executions, starvation and presence of death all around those imprisoned there are established facts about such places and recreated here. A Nazi officer who makes inmates who have “stolen” apples put them on their heads before he shoots them, but who spares those who, unprompted, quote Schiller’s “William Tell” to him? Give me a break.

One accepts death camp movies on their level when possible. Even “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” had merits and pathos and made you feel something.

For all its vivid recreation of the era and the grim physical realities of the camps, its mostly solid and credible performances, “The Champion” fails at almost everything else important to any movie that tackles this subject.

Rating: TV-MA, violence

Cast: Piotr Glowacki, Jan Szydlowski, Marianna Pawlisz, Grzegorz Malecki, Marcin Czarnik and Piotr Witkowski

Credits: Scripted and directed by Maciej Barczewski. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:31

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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