Arts / Entertainment

“Life for Life” and the living memory of Maximilian Kolbe

This film brings us face to face with the moral complexity of Kolbe’s ultimate sacrifice

Like all great stories, Peter Weir’s The Truman Show has layers that only deepen over time. One of these is “Father Kolbe’s Preaching,” the song that plays in the final scenes, when Truman talks to the creator of his world. It’s a stirring piece that matches the mood perfectly.

But “Father Kolbe’s Preaching” isn’t a tribute to any character in fictional Seahaven. In fact, it wasn’t written for the film at all. It actually comes from an obscure 1991 Polish biopic titled Life for Life about Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who died at Auschwitz on August 14th, 1941 (his feast day in the Catholic Church). Whether or not someone saw a connection between Truman’s story and Kolbe’s, Life for Life remains one of the more powerful films about a saint ever produced, and an ever-deepening story in its own right.

The movie opens with a prisoner named Jan Tytz (a young Christoph Waltz, decades before he stole the show in Inglourious Basterds) escaping from Auschwitz. Tytz later learns that ten inmates had been randomly selected to starve to death to deter future escapes. What’s more, when one of the men cried out about his wife and children and begged to be spared, a total stranger – a priest – stepped forward and asked to take his place. Kolbe then led the other nine victims in prayer as they wasted away in their cell, eventually receiving a lethal injection of carbolic acid.

Like The Seventh Chamber (about philosopher and Auschwitz victim Edith Stein, or St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), Life for Life isn’t the least bit sentimental or myopic. Instead, it brings us face to face with the moral complexity of Kolbe’s ultimate sacrifice. The seemingly unremarkable and unworthy man that Kolbe saves, the parallel story of Tytz trying to come to terms with the priest’s actions, and the broader cultural questions of the age all firmly ground this hagiography in reality.

And Kolbe’s story continues to crystallize today. Last year, Artur Rosman translated a rare interview with an eyewitness that sheds even greater light on Kolbe’s character:

“What’s most interesting is how in his dialogue [with the SS officer] Fr. Maximilian never once used the word ‘please.’ He broke down the judge who had usurped the right to decide life and death and forced him to change his verdict. He acted like a consummate diplomat but in place of a tuxedo, ribbons, and decorations he had his striped prison uniform, a bowl, and wooden clogs. A funeral silence prevailed at that moment, every second seemed to last an eternity. Then something happened that still cannot be understood by neither the prisoners nor Germans. The SS-man spoke to Fr. Maximilian using a ‘formal you’ address, ‘Warum wollen Sie für ihn sterben?’ – ‘Why do you Sir [closest equivalent to ‘formal you’ in English] want to die for him?’

All the canons the SS-man had followed earlier came crashing down. Just a few moments before that he was calling him ‘Polish swine,’ and now he addresses him as Sir. The SS-men and lower ranking soldiers nearby were not sure whether they were hearing aright. Only once in the history of concentration camps did it come to pass that a high ranking officer, who had murdered thousands of innocent people, addressed a prisoner in such a way.”

Kolbe also surfaced in the headlines a few days ago during Pope Francis’ visit to Auschwitz. Francis, who silently and solemnly walked through the camp and greeted survivors, stopped in Maximilian Kolbe’s cell to silently pray for several minutes. Later that day, he spoke to the pilgrims at World Youth Day in Krakow about how the radical cruelty of Auschwitz lives on. “‘This cruelty exists today. We say: ‘Yes, we have seen cruelty, 70 years ago; how they died shot, hanged or gassed.’ But today, in so many places in the world where there is war, the same thing happens.”

For Francis, Kolbe’s response to this cruelty is one we need to acknowledge, understand, and imitate. The Nazis wrote of “life unworthy of life” – lives that were developmentally, racially, or otherwise “undeserving” of the right to live. In contrast, Kolbe gave his own life for another life without any kind of litmus test for its worthiness. The Nazis taught that certain men were superior and could justify cruelty; Kolbe, that all men are brothers and “the Cross is the school of love.” The Nazis sacrificed six million in the Holocaust; Kolbe offered a single holocaust of self-sacrifice.

Life for Life secures that story in our minds, and recasts the starry ideal of the sacredness of human life as an earthly reality reflected in the lives of its defenders.

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Matthew Becklo

Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.