Director awed by added dimension of humanity to Auschwitz photos from colorizing
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Interview'I was actually taken aback by how much it added'

Director awed by added dimension of humanity to Auschwitz photos from colorizing

Two-part documentary ‘Auschwitz Untold in Color’ to air in UK and US with unprecedented touched-up death camp images; shows Jewish resistance, cultural genocide, murder of Romani

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

  • Still from 'Auschwitz: Untold in Color.' (Serge Klarsfeld/ Lily Jacob-Zelmanovic Meier)
    Still from 'Auschwitz: Untold in Color.' (Serge Klarsfeld/ Lily Jacob-Zelmanovic Meier)
  • Still from 'Auschwitz: Untold in Color.' (Serge Klarsfeld/ Lily Jacob-Zelmanovic Meier)
    Still from 'Auschwitz: Untold in Color.' (Serge Klarsfeld/ Lily Jacob-Zelmanovic Meier)
  • Still from 'Auschwitz: Untold in Color.' (Serge Klarsfeld/ Lily Jacob-Zelmanovic Meier)
    Still from 'Auschwitz: Untold in Color.' (Serge Klarsfeld/ Lily Jacob-Zelmanovic Meier)
  • Still from 'Auschwitz: Untold in Color.' (Serge Klarsfeld/ Lily Jacob-Zelmanovic Meier)
    Still from 'Auschwitz: Untold in Color.' (Serge Klarsfeld/ Lily Jacob-Zelmanovic Meier)

LONDON — For the first time television audiences in the United States and Britain will this week have the opportunity to see archive black and white footage and photographs of the Nazi deaths camps in color.

But David Shulman, the producer and director of the two-part documentary “Auschwitz Untold In Color,” admits that he approached the idea of colorizing the monochrome images with a “great deal of reservation.”

“I thought it potentially would be perceived as incredibly crass given the context. I thought it was a far cry from colorizing World War II and the narrative and diversity of the footage you would have in colorizing WWII versus the Holocaust and the camps,” he says.

Shulman’s initial skepticism was, however, overcome when he began to see the results.

“I was actually taken aback by how much humanity — the sense of humanity — it added to the black and white archive when it is very skillfully colorized,” says the award-winning documentary-maker.

“It’s just a phenomenal qualitative difference and I was surprised,” Shulman says. “As a filmmaker, I thought I would read an image of a person as a person with their full humanity whether it was black or white or color… This really does add a dimension of humanity that is otherwise missing.”

Still from ‘Auschwitz: Untold in Color.’ (Serge Klarsfeld/ Lily Jacob-Zelmanovic Meier)

There does exist a small amount of footage of the camps that was originally shot in color. The programs will be broadcast on More4 in the UK on January 26 and 27, and will air on the History Channel in the US on the evening of January 26.

January 27 is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and the day also marks International Holocaust Memorial Day.

American-born, but based in the UK, Shulman recognizes the attention that colorizing the camps has brought to the film, which tells the story of the Holocaust from the perspective of 16 survivors.

Colorization is now very familiar to British audiences following the production of television series such as “World War I In Color” and “World War II In Color,” as well as the success of the 2018 documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old.” It used colorization to show cinema-goers the horror of the trenches in which British soldiers fought in the 1914-18 conflict.

“’They Shall Not Grow Old’ was so powerful and so effective, it… created even a greater interest and receptivity to this particular film,” Shulman says.

Director David Shulman, right in an interview after winning the 2018 Specialist Factual BAFTA award. (Youtube screenshot)

He stresses that colorization was not, though, his primary motivation for joining the production team. Instead, Shulman wanted to highlight aspects of the Shoah that he believes have too often been left unexamined.

“I felt that the story of the persecution of the Roma had historically been overlooked. I felt the level of Jewish resistance — the partisans, the ghettos where there were revolts — has generally been given short shrift,” he says. “I felt that the destruction of Jewish and Yiddish culture — cultural genocide — was generally not even taken up as a theme.”

I felt the level of Jewish resistance — the partisans, the ghettos where there were revolts — has generally been given short shrift

“Those were areas that I was particularly interested in addressing and the film does that,” says Shulman, whose previous work has, among other topics, examined racism in America and the US civil rights movement.

The survivors featured in the documentary are from Britain, the US, and Europe. They include an artist, a scientist, writers, educators, doctors, and a resistance fighter, as well as a “double survivor” — a member of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who survived the October 2018 shooting attack that took 11 lives and injured seven more.

Among those who appear in the film are Arek Hersh, who was born in Sieradz, Poland; Mindu Hornick, originally from Tacovo, Czechoslovakia; and Agnes Kaposi, born in Debrecen, Hungary.

Holocaust survivor Arek Hersh in the documentary, ‘Auschwitz Untold in Color.’ (Courtesy Fulwell 73)

Shulman acknowledges the poignancy which comes with the fact that “this is going to be one of the last major documentaries about the Holocaust that living survivors will be participating in.” This fact was, he believes, a major factor in the Oscar-winning British actor, Sir Ben Kingsley, agreeing to narrate it.

The programs includes accounts of the forms of resistance which took place inside the camp, including the rebellion of crematorium workers and efforts to sabotage armament assembly lines. The documentary hears the story of a member of the Jewish underground who was involved in armed resistance against the Nazis in Lithuania as her family was being slaughtered in a death camp. It also includes the seldom-heard voice of a Romani survivor.

Still from ‘Auschwitz: Untold in Color.’ (Serge Klarsfeld/ Lily Jacob-Zelmanovic Meier)

The filmmakers discussed with the contributors that an aspect of the documentary would involve colorization, a process in which computer software examines original footage and gives realistic hues to different elements. There were, says Shulman, a “range of reactions,” adding that some survivors who appear in the film were “agnostic.”

“They don’t really know what to make of the idea of color,” he says. “They somehow feel the footage is what they know it to be [so] why make any changes?”

Others, however, felt “completely behind” the idea. “All the people in the film do a lot of Holocaust education work. It has become their mission and they work with young people,” notes Shulman.

Holocaust survivor Mindu Hornick in the documentary, ‘Auschwitz Untold in Color.’ (Courtesy Fulwell 73)

“So a number of people who we discussed this with feel very strongly that… a young audience — particularly high school students — would just turn off anything to do with black and white. They just don’t relate to it… It’s ancient [and] there’s no personal resonance for them.”

Shulman believes, however, that seeking to address the lack of knowledge on the part of many young people about the Holocaust — and their believed inability to relate to it — is about much more than colorizing footage.

“The other thing that I very much wanted to do in any way I could was to give the film a contemporary resonance as much as possible,” he says. “We used a lot of contemporary… shots when we were establishing locations where there were death camps or work camps or pogroms.”

The programs also includes “comments from contributors who talk about the rise of fascism in terms that have a great deal of contemporary resonance,” Shulman adds.

Still from ‘Auschwitz: Untold in Color.’ (Serge Klarsfeld/ Lily Jacob-Zelmanovic Meier)

Relevance, says Shulman, is key to the program’s retelling of the Shoah story. As a child and teenager, he recalls feeling that the Holocaust was “long ago and far away.”

“Today, it’s a complete paradox,” he says. “It feels much more recent and much more relevant than it did then.”

“In some ways it feels more contemporary than it did 25 or 30 years ago,” Shulman continues, “and I think [that] is because of the politics of the world: the rise of nationalism around the world and the complexity today of anti-Semitism. It is extremely relevant and resonant… particularly [in terms of] how people’s fears and anxieties can be exploited for political gain.”

Still from ‘Auschwitz: Untold in Color.’ (Serge Klarsfeld/ Lily Jacob-Zelmanovic Meier)

The series was personally important to its makers. For development producer Sheldon Lazarus, says Shulman, “it was certainly a passion project.”

“For a very long time he wanted to see a film made that would be a contemporary approach to the story of the Holocaust,” Shulman says.

Leo Pearlman, one of the founders of production company Fulwell 73 and an executive producer of the programs, is the grandson of Holocaust survivors. Shulman’s family came to America from Europe in the 1920s but not all the family escaped.

“All the brothers and sisters of my grandparents who stayed behind were… at ground zero where a lot of the mass killings of Jews [occurred] when the Nazis moved into Ukraine and that part of the Soviet Union,” he says.

“I heard a story from my aunt that suddenly they stopped receiving any communications from the family, from her aunts and uncles,” Shulman recalls. “They just stopped getting postcards and letters.”

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