Director: Sergei Loznitsa
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 2008, I interviewed Errol Morris about his then-new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, which tried to make sense of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal of the Bush Jr. administration. We talked about why he thought one of the scapegoats who took the fall for the administration photographed the humiliations and torture in which she took part. He said:
In a way, it’s an essential question, and I don’t pretend that I have some definitive answer. I think, in general, we photograph things because reality is peculiar. Maybe we need to stop it and look at it and memorialize it so we can scrutinize it at some later time, refresh our memory of our own experiences.
This is certainly one of several possible reasons we take pictures, and tourists are especially keen to document and view themselves in places they may never visit again as a kind of highlights book of their life. What I find peculiar is not necessarily reality, as Morris suggests, but the urge not only to visit places like Auschwitz or Gettysburg, but to stand smiling before a camera at these sites of mass slaughter. Austerlitz, an unnarrated look at visitors to the Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp in northeastern Germany, raises these and other issues, and causes a unique kind of self-questioning in audiences who view it.
There are few things more boring than looking at someone else’s vacation pictures, and it is perhaps with this wry thought in mind that director Sergei Loznitsa places his static camera just inside the camp gate to film a long opening sequence of arriving visitors. Several tour groups deposit large clots of tourists outside, many with cameras dangling around their necks or selfie sticks at the ready. We also see family groups pushing buggies and baby strollers, and couples having a day out together. All the visitors are dressed for summer in slogan- or logo-tagged t-shirts, shorts, tank tops, and other light gear.
Many are drawn to having their picture taken in front of or standing like inmates behind the bars of the wrought-iron gate into which the message “Arbeit Macht Frei” is twisted, including a man wearing a yarmulke. That infamous phrase assures us that we are not at just any tourist attraction, but one specifically linked to mass murder. Loznitsa’s choice to shoot the entire film in black and white recalls the monochrome pictures and newsreels that are many people’s only exposure to period images of Nazi prisoners; thus, this choice has the effect of marching these day trippers in the shoes of those who would never emerge from this camp again.
Loznitsa sets his camera up at various locations, but aside from crematory ovens and a tiled room that was probably an exam or autopsy room, we don’t see most of what the visitors see. We watch people standing and moving down a long corridor pocked with doors, some looking briefly inside one of the rooms and at least one woman examining the contents of one for a long time, obstructing other visitors who want to see it, too—is it curiosity about what she’s seeing or just another stop on the tour to be checked off? After she finishes her examination, the camera catches her in the corridor looking grave and isolated while foregrounded by a child moving swiftly in her direction.
It is truly remarkable how a static camera can capture people randomly arranging themselves in very artful compositions. A bridge over a closed-up half-square is empty as a lone figure positions herself in front of the sealed opening to listen to the explanation of what she is seeing on the handset for her self-guided tour. Caught in the narrative, she must stand in place until it is finished as the bridge fills up with tourists moving in either direction. We, then, are the observers of a pure abstraction of disquieting beauty.
Loznitsa offers some details about Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg by way of the tour guides who provide information about the camp to their groups. One Italian guide describes the treatment of the political prisoners who formed the majority of the camp’s residents and the agonizing pain they went through when they were tied to pillars in the yard, their screams unnerving the other prisoners who were being interrogated. Again we see the spontaneous pull of the narrative as one member of the group puts his back to one of the pillars and stretches his arms up as though tied to it to pose for a picture.
What are we to make of this action? It’s a kneejerk reaction to condemn the apparent insensitivity of so many of the people who walk like seemingly mindless cattle through the camp—but then, weren’t Jews mocked for being sheep to the slaughter? Perhaps the photo at the pillar offers a graphic “caption” of how these pillars were used for the edification of unknown viewers in the future. Loznitsa is careful to ensure that we see the look of horror on some visitors’ faces at certain points, particularly at one exhibit we know must be especially meaningful because a large bronze sculpture commemorating the dead and suffering inmates stands opposite it.
We can’t expect people who are not living in emergency to act as though they are. This is history, an edifice devoid of actual threat that, nonetheless, bears witness to the fact that atrocities under the Nazi regime took place here. Those who choose to visit concentration camps may just be along for the ride, to see but not learn. But I imagine many of them and those who watch this film are drawn to examine a side of humanity most have never seen, to learn more about what their ancestors went through, or even to search their souls for their own capacity to do evil. The film takes its title from German writer and academic W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel Austerlitz. Like most of his works that deal with personal and collective memory, his novel depicts a man who fled Czechoslovakia during World War II as part of the kindertransport who works to reclaim his history, which had been banished from memory by the foster parents who took him in and adopted him. Although Loznitsa’s Austerlitz may try some viewers’ patience, it is an excellent reminder that all works of art ultimately are examinations of the relationship of human beings to themselves, each other, and to the world.
Austerlitz screens Sunday, March 26 at 3:15 p.m. and Wednesday, March 29 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
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