Tragic History in Peak-Season

in 59th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Ohad Landesman

A crowd of people gathers next to the sign “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work sets you free”) at the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Everyone seems to be taking photos, each with his own personal camera, sometimes even using a selfie stick. What are they all looking at? We cannot see, as the frame excludes it. What are they trying to capture? We cannot understand, as they all seem to be lost, as we are, in a futile attempt to seize the essence of the place and record it. Is there really anything to see here? Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz, a festival stunner that premiered at Venice, went on to Wavelengths in Toronto, and finally grabbed the most prestigious award at Dok Leipzig this year, is a movie that is looking at how other people are looking. Loznitsa’s digital camera remains static, placed at eye level vantage points to restrainedly observe tourists visiting sites of concentration camps. While not essentially a hidden camera, it is cleverly concealed from the sight of the visitors, or at least they do not seem to notice it. The shots last several minutes, exclude the use of voice-over or talking heads, and quickly make clear that Austerlitz is not a movie that aims to instruct or even guide us how to think. It is hard, though, not to contemplate critically what we are watching. People walk around those sites in shorts and T-shirts, carry their cameras as if they were visiting a museum exhibition or a theme park. At one point, we notice a man wearing a ‘Jurassic Park’ T-shirt on his visit to a death camp, and another using a selfie stick in an inventive, even unimaginative way. After all, it is a nice sunny day outside and the tourist season is at its peak. Are we becoming too self-righteous or condescending by suspecting that the tourists may be taking too lightly, perhaps even humorously, those horrific memorial sites? “Ok, a five-minute break for toilets or a sandwich”, announces one guide, quickly depriving the place of its original context by turning it into an ordinary object for touristic photography in the present.

Austerlitz is a film that induces feelings of restlessness and concern while watching it. The rich sound design, made by Loznitsa’s long-time collaborator Vladimir Golovnitski, amplifies the noise of the crowd, making it louder as the shots linger. It is frightening and overwhelming in its intensity. We hear the crowd on many layers of the soundtrack, but cannot grasp any concrete sentences. The voices of the tour guides, on the other hand, are dubbed and overlapped on top of the images. Their different intonations – whether extremely earnest, way too emotional or even ironic: “don’t worry, this isn’t the last time you’re ever going to be able to eat”, says one of them – often strike us as simply inappropriate. Occasionally, Austerlitz may seem like a sociological study on film – the longer Loznitsa stays at a site, the more people pass in front of his camera, and the better we believe to understand the motivation of their behaviour. However, as a philosophical provocation full of paradoxes and enigmas, Loznitsa’s film leaves us with more question marks than concrete answers. Is it really possible to understand how people relate to the culture of mourning and death nowadays by statistically witnessing how they use cameras or take selfies in a concentration camp? As tempting as it may be, is it indeed fair to infer that this culture of tourist photography prevents the visitors from truly understanding the historical importance of these locations? If this is part and parcel of what has recently been termed as “the pornography of the Holocaust”, on what moral grounds exactly are we expecting those tourists to behave differently? Loznitsa is never condescending towards his subjects, and his indifferent and contemplative camerawork invites us to grapple with these questions without any ironic distance or ready-made answers.

Besides, by framing the shots according to the architectural logic of the places (the shape of the buildings or the locations of the gates), people often seem to come second in importance. We may be wondering what really is the object of he gaze here? Loznitsa’s is a carefully composed meditation on how we experience a site scarred with traumatic moments, and how photography and film can register such presence. Austerlitz is shot by Loznitsa and Jesse Mazuch in black- and-white, an aesthetic decision that lends everything in the frame an abstract quality. It also produces the effect of an archive, making the footage seem like it is excluded from a specific timeframe. When the film ends, though, the past resonates strongly, even more ironically than before. A crowd of visitors is slowly departing from the same “Arbeit macht frei” gate with which the film opened. Those masses of tourists, leaving the site happily on one sunny day in the midst of the peak season, inevitably make us contemplate other masses of Jewish victims, crammed through these gates and extinguished like cockroaches with assembly-line efficiency. If this is what “Shoah Tourism” is all about, then maybe after all, comedy is indeed tragedy plus time.

Edited by Amber Wilkinson