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In ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz,’ a love story blooms in the darkest of times and places

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Something as simple as a framing device elevates “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” – which stands out from a host of recent Holocaust tales – thanks in part to Harvey Keitel, starring as the elderly Lale Sokolov who recounts his remarkable story of life in a concentration camp to an unlikely interviewer. Jumping around in time, this British production captures the horror of that experience while finding notes of grace in its narrator’s survival.

That’s in part because this six-part series is at its core a love story, unfolding under the most horrible of circumstances. Assigned to tattoo identification numbers on the arms of other prisoners, the the young Lale, or Lali (“The Little Mermaid’s” Jonah Hauer-King, who lost a noticeable amount of weight for the role), meets Gita (Polish actress Anna Próchniak) while in the camps, becoming almost instantly smitten.

“I want you to live to be an old man,” Gita tells him at one point, a wish that seems all the more tenuous as he deals with the sadistic guards, while she grapples with illness and those around them keep meeting terrible ends.

Their interactions take place tenderly against a backdrop of pain, suffering and the constant threat of quick and arbitrary death, which leads the elder Lali to be haunted by visions of those he knew and lost.

In a stark device, the victims (and in some instances, perpetrators) appear to Lali, like photographs etched in his mind, as he grapples with those memories and feelings of survivor’s guilt. His story pours out, gradually, to aspiring author Heather Morris (“Yellowjackets” star Melanie Lynskey), who is understandably overwhelmed by this flood of memories.

“I haven’t got long,” Lali tells her, fueling her commitment to ensure his story gets told.

As noted, there have been several recent productions dealing with similar material, including Netflix’s “All the Light We Cannot See” and Hulu’s “We Were the Lucky Ones.” On top of that, the 80th anniversary of D-Day is prompting an onslaught of documentary fare devoted to World War II.

Nevertheless, “Tattooist of Auschwitz” stands apart from the crowd, thanks in part to the quality of its performances, not just by documenting the barbarity of the Nazis but the sprigs of humanity that managed to bloom during the darkest of times.

Featuring a new song from Barbra Streisand, the series closes with footage of the real Sokolov being interviewed. Those clips drive the point home, in a way that demonstrates why even for those resistant to sitting through another Holocaust drama, there ought to be room for a really good one.

“The Tattooist of Auschwitz” premieres May 2 on Peacock.

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