Life for Life: Maximilian Kolbe, martyr of Auschwitz (1991)

Christoph Waltz stars as an Auschwitz survivor whose escape is linked to the death of the “martyr of Auschwitz,” St. Maximilian Kolbe

Note: This essay was written for the companion booklet to Ignatius Press’ DVD edition of Life for Life: Maximilian Kolbe (buy at Amazon). SDG

Two great mysteries hover over the cardinal moment in St. Maximilian Kolbe’s life, a quiet exchange of words with the deputy camp commander at Auschwitz-Birkenau heard by few and lasting probably less than a minute. The first mystery is why an uncondemned prisoner stepped forward to ask to be permitted to die in place of a condemned one. The second is why the deputy camp commander, a monster named Karl Fritzsch, consented to this extraordinary request rather than doing what would have been entirely within his character: simply shooting Kolbe for daring to try to spare someone Fritzsch had selected for death, or at best simply ignoring Kolbe entirely.

Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi has depicted this cardinal moment in Kolbe’s life twice, in two films made ten years apart. For a straightforward depiction of Kolbe’s heroic self-sacrifice, you can watch Zanussi’s 1981 film From a Far Country, billed as a biography of Karol Wojtyla, Pope St. John Paul II, though it’s more concerned with the sweep of 20th-century Polish history. (Zanussi also adapted Wojtyla’s play Our God’s Brother for the screen in 1997.) For a more artful, intriguing meditation on the meaning of Kolbe’s life and death, the film to watch is his haunting 1991 film Life for Life: Maximilian Kolbe.

To appreciate how the crucial moment is handled in Life for Life, it’s worth watching the corresponding scene in From a Far Country. In this direct presentation, Kolbe is the obvious protagonist in a clear moral tableau. Fritzsch goes through the ranks of prisoners, randomly selecting ten men to die in retribution for one prisoner who escaped. As one prisoner—Franciszek Gajowniczek—frantically pleads for his life, Zanussi gives us repeated tight close-ups on Kolbe’s face as he realizes what he must do. When Kolbe steps forward, the ensuing exchange is filmed in typical over-the-shoulder shot / reverse shot fashion, placing viewers in the center of the dialogue. To Fritzsch’s puzzled queries, Kolbe answers simply and clearly, “I’m a Catholic priest.” Taken a bit off balance, Fritzsch allows the exchange, symbolically reasserting his control over the situation by using his baton as a sort of crossing gate, first checking Kolbe before prodding him to join the other condemned men.

The effect of this oblique approach is to defamiliarize an episode much celebrated in 20th-century Catholic hagiography, stripping away the aura of devotional piety surrounding it and forcing us to see it with fresh eyes.

In Life for Life, although it is clearly the same event, Zanussi’s approach is completely different. Our first glimpse of Kolbe (Edward Żentara) comes during the selection of condemned prisoners. He is an anonymous figure, seen over the shoulders of other prisoners rather than in close-up. There is no clear moral tableau, no obvious protagonist. Kolbe’s expression is conflicted at the screams of the prisoner he will save, but there is no window into his soul. What follows we first see through the eyes of a former prisoner—a lawyer—as he recalls it about a year afterward. Kolbe is barely visible in this flashback, a distant figure mysteriously conversing with Fritzsch (Markus Vogelbacher). The lawyer (Andrew Szczepkowski) didn’t know the priest and didn’t hear what was said—though he saw him join the group of condemned prisoners, and the man who cried rejoining the others. (In From a Far Country, Gajowniczek comes face to face with his savior; here he returns to his place without so much as a backward glance.)

Multiple views of a saint

What exactly happened? Why did Kolbe do it? To this question there is no unequivocal answer. We must piece together a larger picture from the testimony of those who knew Kolbe, either before or in Auschwitz. Among these are a young Franciscan named Anselm (Artur Barciś) who witnessed Kolbe’s arrest during the Nazi roundup of Polish intellectuals; a carpenter (Gustav Lutkiewicz) who reminisces about Kolbe’s effect on people around him and a former Auschwitz prisoner who once saved Kolbe’s life at the camp.

The effect of this oblique approach is to defamiliarize an episode much celebrated in 20th-century Catholic hagiography, stripping away the aura of devotional piety surrounding it and forcing us to see it with fresh eyes. We take this moment for granted, imagining it from the perspective of the principals, yet neither Kolbe nor Fritzsch left us their version of what happened. What happened that day, we realize, could easily have been lost to history. The man whose life was spared, Franciszek Gajowniczek (Piotr Kozlowski), did not flourish at Auschwitz after his brush with death, and was not immediately inclined to speak about it afterward. (Zanussi doesn’t point this out, but the prisoners were not happy about losing a confessor and confidant, and took it out on Gajowniczek. Still, Gajowniczek’s trajectory wasn’t as bleak as it’s left here: He attended the beatification and canonization ceremonies for Kolbe at the Vatican, and when he died in 1995 he was buried at Niepokalanów, the monastery Kolbe founded near Warsaw.)

Zanussi permits a hearing for skeptical interpretations of Kolbe’s act, his life and his cultus. Was the celebrated act anything more than a pious fairy tale to comfort hopeless men? If Kolbe did offer to die, was it a form of suicide, of escape? Do Kolbe’s writings before the war establish him as a reactionary, a bigot, an anti-Semite? Does the perpetuation of the story and his eventual beatification merely serve the pride of Kolbe’s Franciscan community and the political interests of the Church? In a way, Life for Life was made in part in response to such charges. Zanussi has written that he was never personally drawn to Kolbe, and wouldn’t have been inclined to make a film about him—until the project was pitched to him by a German film company in the mid-1980s, at a time when Kolbe was under attack in his native country by Polish communists, via government spokesman Jerzy Urban, who accused him of anti-Semitism and retrograde ideas. The irony of German filmmakers wanting to honor Kolbe while the Polish government accused him struck Zanussi as more than he as a Pole could bear. The film went forward as a German–Polish co-production, known jointly as Życie za życie: Maksymilian Kolbe and Leben Für Leben: Maximilian Kolbe.

From the opening shot of a dog fetching a stick from a stagnant pool that pans back to reveal an armed guard and then, alarmingly, prisoners in striped uniforms, Zanussi moves the film forward with careful compositions and precise camera movements that often reveal a larger context, in a way not unlike the drama itself. Salient points neglected by the skeptical account above emerge as the film unfolds. Before his arrest at Niepokalanów monastery Kolbe gave sanctuary to Jews and other fugitives. In Auschwitz he was known for sharing his meager rations of bread, despite his own poor health. Far from going to his death in despair, songs and prayers overheard from the bunker indicated that Kolbe continued to minister to his fellow condemned men as they slowly starved, until finally Kolbe, the last survivor, was executed by a lethal injection of carbolic acid.

An incomprehensible act

Christoph Waltz—who went onto Hollywood success with his Oscar-winning roles in Quentin Tarantino’s lurid historical fantasies Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained—stars here in a World War II drama far more sober than his first Tarantino film (where he played a Jew-hunting Nazi). The German-Austrian actor plays a captured insurgent from Silesia (a historic region of Europe now divided between Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic) who escapes from Auschwitz, condemning ten prisoners to die in his place. Although the film clearly indicates that Jan is the very man whose disappearance condemns Kolbe, Jan himself can’t be absolutely certain that this is the case; all he knows is that he escaped around the same time. In principle, it’s possible that Kolbe’s death was occasioned by another disappearance around that time. After all, a number of prisoners went missing around that time. One was recaptured within six months and executed. Some reports indicate that that the prisoner who vanished the day Kolbe volunteered to die was later found drowned in the camp latrine. Yet any escapee must have endured terrible guilt thinking of the punishment to be exacted on those he left behind. The story of a prisoner willingly dying to save another from such a selection—what would he make of that?

From the outset Life for Life highlights the near incomprehensibility of such an act in such a place. Using almost no dialogue, with complex tracking shots depicting prisoners crossing paths but never interacting, Zanussi and cinematographer Edward Kłosiński (Three Colors: White) visually establish an environment in which each man goes about his business keeping his head down, taking no notice of anyone else and doing his best not to be noticed. One prisoner laboring to dislodge a branch from an earthen wall is unexpectedly buried in a small landslide. No one sees; no one cries out. Later this man—Jan—emerges from the pile of dirt and flees.

Outside the camp, it is not a world bereft of compassion or empathy. Jan is aided first by a stationmaster who gives him a change of clothes and helps him jump a train, then by a group of men furtively stealing coal from the train who find the prisoner unconscious in the coal car. Those who aid Jan do so at their own peril, though there are limits to how much they are willing to risk. Eventually he finds sanctuary with Franciscans, first at Alwernia (a Polish town named for the Franciscan hermitage of La Verna in Tuscany), then at Niepokalanów monastery. It is the friars who first connect Jan’s escape around late July or early August with the story of the death of their brother, Father Maximilian. At first Jan questions their motives: “You want your own saint?” he scoffs to Brother Anselm.

Anselm implicitly argues that Kolbe’s sacrifice is not only true and good, but beautiful as well, and not so incomprehensible as Jan wants it to be.

“You think the world doesn’t need saints?” Brother Anselm counters. Jan dismisses this: There are no saints in this world, he says, only egoists — conveniently overlooking the aid he received from others after his escape—not least from the friars themselves, whom he begged to take him in with the plea, “If you believe what you preach, you can’t throw me out.” Despite himself, Jan becomes curious about Kolbe. The subject is like a sore tooth that he can’t stand and can’t leave alone. He is stung by the not-so-subtle intimation of the carpenter, Konior, that Kolbe died due to Jan’s cowardice. Ah, but Konior, who knew Kolbe, was never at Auschwitz. The lawyer, who was at Auschwitz that day, admits praying that Jan would be caught—but also admits that in Jan’s place he would have fled too.

At one point Jan’s criticism of Kolbe’s actions prompts Brother Anselm to retort in frustration, “Is it so absurd to die for someone else? How many poets have dreamed to something like this?” Anselm implicitly argues that Kolbe’s sacrifice is not only true and good, but beautiful as well, and not so incomprehensible as Jan wants it to be. Later, trying to put Auschwitz behind him, Jan tries first to return to his old life, then to find a new one. Yet Kolbe is always there one way or another. Back in Silesia he meets a fellow Auschwitz survivor, and finds himself lying about the circumstances of his escape in order to avoid the uncomfortable truth. Kolbe’s death is a rebuke to Jan’s life that he can never escape.

Saint and sly dog

Using Jan as a foil, Zanussi slowly sketches a portrait of Kolbe in flashbacks, initially in episodes related by those who knew him. The saint emerges from the shadows—literally so in a key shot in the first substantial flashback, over a half hour into the film—as a figure of great integrity, discipline and intelligence, of outward action and inner stillness. This indirect approach allows Zanussi to sidestep the biographical and historical problems implicit in turning a historical figure into the protagonist of a biopic. In principle, anyway; in point of fact, the film does soften Kolbe somewhat. Take the story of the donation of the land for Niepokalanów monastery to Kolbe by Prince Drucki-Lubecki. As Konior tells the story, the prince (Krzysztof Luft) wanted money for the land which the Franciscans couldn’t afford—but when Kolbe said that a statue of Mary erected on the site could remain whether the donation went through or not, the prince, strangely moved, offered him the land for free. “That Kolbe was one hell of sly dog,” Jan snorts, but Konior says thoughtfully that Kolbe was “simply a believer. A true believer. That’s why he had such an effect on people.”

If the film missteps, I think it is in the one wholly groundless flashback allowing Fritzsch to offer an explanation for permitting Kolbe to die in Gajowniczek’s place. The answer is too glib, and really explains nothing.

The real story is more complicated. What Drucki-Lubecki actually wanted in exchange for his land was not money, but the prayers of the friars for himself and his family in perpetuity—a condition Kolbe’s superiors reasonably judged too much to impose on future generations. As for the Marian statue, Kolbe had placed it on the property to claim it for the Immaculata—and, when the prince called off the deal, Kolbe told him that the statue should remain as a sign of Blessed Virgin’s failure to deliver what she had promised! Kolbe then gave the prince three days to ponder the alarming prospect of being the temporal agent of Mary’s failure. In the end, the donation went forward. A true believer, yes, but perhaps a hell of a sly dog as well.

Along with Jan, the film introduces another skeptic, a journalist named Olshansky (Krzysztof Zaleski), himself an Auschwitz survivor, now a nihilistic Communist party member. Though he hates everything the priest stands for, Olshansky unexpectedly balks at a proposal to debunk Kolbe’s celebrated act by digging up some counter-example of a hero who made a similar sacrifice for an acceptable liberal cause. Perhaps this is the secret solidarity of former Auschwitz prisoners. Or perhaps it reflects the influence of Olshansky’s devout wife. If the film missteps, I think it is in the one wholly groundless flashback allowing Fritzsch to offer an explanation for permitting Kolbe to die in Gajowniczek’s place. The answer is too glib, and really explains nothing. Better answers could be imagined; Kolbe’s age and poor health (which by some accounts he pointed out to Fritzsch) could have been factors, since a healthier prisoner was a more useful prisoner. In any case, the question is better left a mystery. Fortunately, it isn’t necessary to take Fritzsch’s own answer as the truth; it could be after-the-fact rationalizing.

Confessor or martyr?

Among the flashbacks is a well-known episode from Kolbe’s youth in which the boy (Raymund was his baptismal name) related to his mother how the Virgin Mary came to him offering two crowns, a white one for purity and a red one for martyrdom—and that he chose both of them. Late in the film, though, is a scene in the Vatican illustrating the theological difficulty of identifying Kolbe as a martyr. As a Vatican official explains, while Kolbe died as an act of heroic virtue, bearing witness to his faith, he was not executed specifically for bearing witness to the faith, out of opposition or hostility to the faith (odium fidei)—the traditional definition of martyrdom. Near the end the film includes televised footage of Kolbe’s 1971 beatification, during which Pope Paul VI confirmed Kolbe’s status as a “confessor” rather than a martyr, while unofficially acclaiming him a “martyr of love.”

Many films about saints reflect on what it means to be a saint … Life for Life does this, but it also does something more: It reflects thoughtfully on what the cultus of the saints means for us, on the nature of hagiography itself.

Strangely, Life for Life omits any mention of Kolbe’s 1982 canonization, during which St. John Paul finessed the definition of “martyr,” effectively arguing that the “systematic hatred and contempt” that characterized the Nazi evil was implicitly a form of odium fidei, hence Kolbe would now be venerated as a martyr. Perhaps St. John Paul, like Prince Drucki-Lubecki, did not wish to deny to Kolbe what he had been promised by the Immaculata!

Many films about saints reflect on what it means to be a saint, celebrating their subjects and inviting us to aspire to emulate them. In a word, they are works of hagiography, expressions of the cultus of the saints. Life for Life does this, but it also does something more: It reflects thoughtfully on what the cultus of the saints means for us, on the nature of hagiography itself. Perhaps more than any film I can think of, it explores how the how the saints can and should inspire us, if we are open to them, or how we may stumble at them if we are not. For this reason alone, it’s among the most essential saint films I’ve seen.

Foreign Language, Monastic Cinema, Priestly, Religious Themes, Saints & Beati, War



A haunting film about the “martyr of Auschwitz”

Nearly two decades before his Oscar-winning role as a Jew-hunting Nazi in Quentin Tarantino’s lurid WWII fantasy Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz played an Auschwitz survivor whose escape is linked to the death of one of Auschwitz’s most celebrated victims, St. Maximilian Kolbe.