This exceptional documentary about an Auschwitz prisoner’s romantic relationship with a high-ranking SS officer overseeing her barracks will make your head spin. Was it love? Was it collaboration? Was it a survival strategy? Would you have done the same?
These are questions not only for Helena Citron but for her female prison-mates, many of whom benefitted from her connection to the Austrian Franz Wunsch. It’s especially so for Citron’s sister Roza who, at Helena’s desperate request, Munsch rescued from the gas chambers at the last minute.
Director Sarfaty has taken her short on the subject–it won a Student Academy Award–to the next level. Love It Was Not begins with a disturbing photo of Citron in Auschwitz’s infamous prison stripes, but with her waist cinched by a belt and with a chubby face. If you didn’t know the source of the clothes, she’d look almost glamorous.
Though this is Citron’s story, the photo becomes another kind of centrepiece for the film. Wunsch, whose obsession with Citron lingered long past the liberation of Auschwitz, made a copy and placed it alongside a photo of himself in a locket that he gave to his daughter. He cut her head out of other copies and affixed it to the bodies of women in pictures taken on the beach or in other civilian situations. Sarfaty does a crafty visual riff off Wunsch’s method by creating similar montages in the film, inserting photos of Citron into archival images of the concentration camp as part of the storytelling process.
The Czech Citron was one of the first females to arrive at the prison. Early on in her incarceration, women prisoners were asked to perform for the Nazi brass and Citron, an excellent singer, enthralled Wunsch with her song. He became enthralled with her, too, and began doing her favours, the most important of which involved placing her on a work detail sorting through the suitcases stripped from new arrivals. Sometimes they contained food or jewelry, which the workers pilfered. Soon the relationship deepened, something that was obvious to her prison-mates.
These events and all that followed are recounted through interviews with Citron, Wunsch, in a strangely amateur video, and her sister Roza, undertaken before 2007, when the last of them died—and well before Sarfaty began work on the film. But the documentary doesn’t work without eyewitness accounts from Citron’s prison-mates.
These constitute the major triumph of Love It Was Not. Sarfaty combed through the archives of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, to find other women who laboured with Citron. These subjects, all of them in their 90s, are smart, thoughtful, with seemingly few holes in their memories. They give the film its humanity, asking all the right questions about Citron and of themselves. They remember how Citron extracted perks for them from Wunsch, fully aware of the implications. And they describe a love connection between Citron and Wunsch that seemed real.
A major subplot is the complex relationship between Citron and her sister Roza who, when she arrived at Auschwitz with her two children, was immediately herded into the gas chambers. Citron raced to get Wunsch to rescue her but he refused to save her children, information Citron tried to keep from her sister. Roza never forgave her for that.
The story about her life in Auschwitz is fascinating enough but Citron’s post-war experience is equally riveting. She moved to Israel–the place on the planet least tolerant of anyone who might be seen as a collaborator–all the while attempting to avoid anyone who may have known her Auschwitz story. Wunsch kept trying to find her and in 1972, shockingly, his wife does. Wunsch had been arrested for war crimes and she wanted Citron to testify on his behalf.
Here’s another brain-boggler. If she goes, she risks losing everything she’s gained in Israel but she’s determined to go to Vienna to tell the truth–all of it. It’s this decision that prompts the interviews that Sarfaty mines for the film, including one with Citron and her sister showing that their rift has not healed.
This is a documentary that asks more questions than it answers. If you see Love It Was Not, make plans with other viewers to have a conversation afterwards. You’ll need it.
Love It Was Not premieres at Hot Docs 2021.