Filmmakers can never do justice in their depictions of the Nazi death camps. Or can they? The horror and degradation, the open graves, the typhus-ridden prison huts are not the stuff of filmic recreation. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was criticised for its mawkishness. Vanessa Redgrave (famous for her pro-PLO views) was damned for her role in the 1980 TV miniseries Playing for Time. She performed as a pianist forced to play in the orchestra of the death camp of Auschwitz.

Maciej Barczewski’s film tells another true story, that of Teddy Pietrzkowski (Piotr Glowacki) a gentleman boxer from Warsaw who, in Auschwitz, became the champ of boxing bouts used to boost the morale of the camp guards, executioners, and their higher-ups.

To survive, Pietrzkowski is given medicine and extra rations (which he shares in the bunk room). He agrees to take part in a sport that seems one of the few normal things in a place where normality has been replaced with savagery and arbitrary death. Pietrzkowski uses his diving and fancy footwork to outwit his physically superior opponents – an unconscious metaphor for the moral superiority the Allies held over the might of the Nazi war machine, perhaps. ‘You’re fighting for us,’ he is told by one of his fellow inmates. He is also fighting for Janek (Jan Szydlowski) a young lad stricken with TB whom he has befriended.

Pietrzkowski is under no illusion about his status as prisoner. Whether he lives or dies is at the whim of the Nazis. Meantime, the camp commandant’s son contracts typhus, an echo of Teddy and the boy with TB. Up until the last reel the viewer is left to ponder whether Pietrzkowski will survive his cruel, thuggish tormentors, and whether the story will offer some sort of redemption.

The filmmakers have pulled off that difficult trick of not making the squalor and violence look too horror-movie slick but not soft peddling either. Much of the action takes place at night or in the dim recesses of the camp and the viewer is left to fill in the gaps. In daylight there is one of those ‘dirty puddle’ filters. Cinematographer Witold Plóciennik is to be commended. The performances of the leads are unshowy and all the more impressive for that.

Available in selected cinemas now