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.
Eva Nová: An alcoholic actress faces her family’s rejection and the harsh reality of being old in a profession that worships youth in this compassionate look at human fragility and the need to survive. (Slovakia)
J: Beyond Flamenco: Master dance filmmaker Carlos Saura offers up another fascinating look at dance styles from Spain, this time, jota, a folksy, upbeat style from his native province of Aragón. (Spain)
Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)
Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)
My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)
On many best documentary lists, including the 2014 and 2016 Academy Awards nomination lists, were The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), both of which deal with the Indonesian death squads that brutally murdered more than a million people in the mid 1960s. Both films are very painful to watch, but it is even more painful to contemplate the depths of depravity and utter heartlessness to which human beings can sink. It’s downright crazy-making to know that anti-communist, anti-unionist, and anti-leftist ideology was used as an excuse for the machinelike decapitations and hackings of hundreds of human beings at a time, and that the murderers credited the United States with teaching them to hate communists.
Burden of Peace tells another such story in another part of the world—Guatemala. Perhaps it should not have surprised me that these same ideologies were behind the genocide of 200,000 Mayan people, from babies to old men, the destruction of more than 450 Mayan villages, and the displacement of more than 1 million people during the 1990s and early 2000s—but it did. One survivor said that the killings were with an economic purpose: a hydroelectric power plant and mining operations are now cranking at full steam on stolen land from which the original inhabitants were, ahem, removed. The Guatemalan military government that ordered the killings had the full support of the United States.
It is a miracle that the heroine of Burden of Peace, Claudia Paz y Paz (Peace and Peace), was appointed Guatemala’s first female attorney general. Paz y Paz became a dedicated human rights activist during her time working with Roman Catholic archbishop Juan José Gerardi, who was symbolically murdered in 1998 with a rock to the skull after he named names to a UN commission investigating human rights violations. As attorney general, she set about purging her office of incompetent and corrupt functionaries and then massed an impressive record of successful prosecutions of everyone from crime lords to corrupt officials. It was when she started to target the military leaders who engineered the Mayan genocide that she finally became a painful enough thorn to the country’s power elite to warrant removal.
Dutch filmmakers Boink and Wirten give us the lay of the land prior to Paz y Paz’s installation as attorney general, with pictures of the murdered and missing among the Mayans, dead bodies from gangland slayings and gang disputes, and frightened Guatemalans standing by helplessly as the police and government officials fail them. Then they follow Paz y Paz around as she is driven in what must be an armored SUV to and from her office in Guatemala City and conducts investigations, staff performance reviews, and victim interviews. She doesn’t complain about her exhaustion or the difficulties of trying to get her job done in the face of so much corruption; she finds people willing to work honestly alongside her to try to get the rule of law off life support. She has a picture of former U.S Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy on her office wall to give her inspiration. Her objective is to give the people of Guatemala hope and confidence in a system that has been broken for nearly 40 years during the country’s lengthy civil war and numerous military coups and dictatorships. Her most important case, and the centerpiece of the film, is the prosecution of Efraín Ríos Montt, president of Guatemala during the genocide.
There is something about her that makes one breathe easier. She has an open, caring face and an obvious intelligence and determination. The film luxuriates in her presence, lulling one into thinking everything will turn out well despite the formidable obstacles. Thus, it is a real shock when Boink and Wirten turn to one of her most vociferous detractors, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, whose father served in Ríos Montt’s government during the genocide. His Foundation Against Terrorism represents the business elite and the military establishment, and he publishes tracts and blogs that denigrate her and accuse her of ignoring ordinary crime to advance her ideological war against the state. He says, “She may be charming with her soft voice, and you may think ‘O poor, little fatty.’ But she is incapable of being the attorney general. She comes from a different world, the world of human rights.” If your jaw just dropped, join the club. The thinking behind these statements and the insulting, racist comments that come from the defense attorneys for Ríos Montt left me dumbstruck.
The trial is both fascinating and deeply depressing, as Mayan villagers come one by one to the witness stand to testify to what they saw, brutality beyond description but crucial to the trial’s outcome. A victory that becomes a defeat is to follow, and then Paz y Paz finds herself accused of impropriety in office and facing an early ouster. She knows that the establishment intends to undo all she has done, return the crime bosses to the five regions from which they had been eradicated, install more corrupt, incompetent police and prosecutors. Perhaps another genocide is in the offing. I left this film feeling deeply disheartened and pessimistic about the human race, let alone Guatemala. But then I read on about Guatemala post-Paz y Paz—a corrupt president was forced to resign. I hope Claudia Paz y Paz, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and beacon for human rights around the world, knows that her legacy endures.
Burden of Peace screens Monday, April 11 at 6 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
I Swear I’ll Leave This Town: A recovering cocaine addict goes more out of control than when she was using when her father takes control of her life in the hallucinatory dramedy. (Brazil)
Among the thriving film industries of Eastern Europe, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s has consistently provided courageous and inventive stories that tell the rest of the world what has happened and is happening in this scarred region. The female filmmakers of Bosnia-Herzegovina have been especially articulate in depicting the aftermath of the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims by their Serbian neighbors during 1992-1995. The superb Grbavica: Land of My Dreams, a film created by women, dealt with the postwar trauma of a Muslim woman and her daughter that helped people like me who had only heard about the Bosnian War on the news understand the deep, human consequences of this tragic conflict.
Now we have another beautifully wrought film—the winner of the critics’ week grand prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—from another female director about the survivors of the tiny Muslim town of Slavno who saw all its males, including young boys, rousted from their beds and taken off to be slaughtered. Snow takes place in a time out of time. Real-life events occur, but the handful of residents (surely there must be more than 10 people in this village) who have lost fathers, husbands, and children live in a kind of limbo, wishfully thinking and dreaming that their men somehow escaped unharmed or clinging to bitterness over their ruined lives.
At the center of the film are Alma (in a mesmerizing, soul-searing performance by Zana Marjanović), a young widow and the only woman in the film to wear the veil and modest clothing prescribed by Muslim traditions, and Ali (Benjamin Djip), a young boy who witnessed the murder of the men and boys of the village and ever since has seen his voice muted and his hair refusing to grow. Ali lives with the only other man in the village, the elderly Dedo (Emir Hadžihafizbegović), who leads prayer sessions for the women.
Alma has started a cottage industry canning fruits and vegetables and making chutneys to “feed half of Bosnia”—a dream her dead husband had. Working with her are Sabrina (Jelena Kordic), a young woman who listens to rock music, dresses like a mod, and dreams of going to Sweden to hook up with a man she had a fling with after her husband was killed; Jasmina (Sadzida Setic), a bitter woman whose young sons and husband were murdered and who now looks after two orphan girls; and Najida (Jasna Beri), a Bosnian Mother Earth whose daughter Lejla (Alma Terzić) holds out hope that her father somehow survived. Safija (Vesna Masic), the mother-in-law Alma barely tolerates, lays on her sofa, prostrate from a weak heart and seemingly retired from life. The matriarch of the village, Nana (Irena Mulamuhic), sits in her home where she has undertaken the project of weaving a very long carpet out of cloth remnants she cuts from tote bags and bolts of fabric.
Najida helps Alma drag a cart filled with jars of preserves up a hill to set up a roadside stand. The road seems abandoned; how do they scratch out a living with this highly unprofitable enterprise? Najida tells Alma she needs to relieve herself and wants Alma to come with her. In the short time the cart is left untended, a truck barrels around the turn and smashes the cart and the fruits of the women’s labor to bits. The driver, Hamsa (Muhamed Hadzovic), offers to pay for the ruined goods and gives the women a lift back to town. When he tries to strike up a conversation, Alma is cold and distant. Then he says he is from Alma’s home village and says that he escaped death by hiding under dead bodies for two days. He now makes a good living delivering furniture from Germany to Bosnia. Alma warms to him after she learns he, too, is a victim. He strikes a bargain with her to buy all their stock for sale in Germany. He also seems to have his eye on Alma.
Back in the village, the other women are skeptical that Hamsa will keep his promise, but Alma’s faith is unshakable. Even when a Serb named Miro (Jasmin Jelco) comes with an offer from a large company to buy their land, Alma encourages the women to put their faith in Hamsa. On the appointed day of his arrival to buy their stock, Hamsa is a no-show. When Miro returns with Marc (Dejan Spasic), an officer of the buying company, to get the villagers to sign contracts selling their land, many of them comply. Alma is tempted to give up as well, but Safija counsels her to stay put: “We’ve lived through worse.”
A storm and engine trouble force Marc and Miro to stay in town. When Ali comes in, his hair now growing, he and Miro have a strange confrontation that changes the fate of all the villagers and enables them to move past their grief and anger and get on with their lives.
Snow deftly mixes reality with dreamscapes, superstition, and magic in a town that seems as mythic as Brigadoon. We don’t see much of Slavno beyond a few ramshackle buildings and some house interiors. With only a handful of inhabitants, Slavno just can’t exist and provide for all of the needs these people have. Like Brigadoon, the residents of Slavno are under the influence of an enchantment—in this case, a mourning that can’t end because of the uncertainty surrounding the fate of their men and boys. Alma has a recurring dream—twisting her beautiful veil as she walks, washing herself at a fountain, carrying a cup of water and a towel to the site of prayer—but we don’t know it’s a dream at first. Alma herself wakens from these dreams unsure of where she is and what she is to do. When the netherworld in which Slavno exists finally comes to an end, the villagers walk across an expanse on the rug Nana has woven and floated on air to accept their passage.
The color saturation in the film is vivid, intoxicating, the stuff that dreams are made on. Think of What Dreams May Come or The Fall, and you’ll have some idea of just how gorgeous and communicative they are. The sound design also helps us float on this film. For example, while listening to a theological lesson from Dedo, Ali is distracted by a rustle of wind that slowly grows louder and stronger. “God sees everything,” Dedo says to Alma late in the film. When the storm that traps Miro and Marc in Slavno announces itself with a strong, roof-snatching force, it seems like the climax of God’s intervention on this blighted village.
One of the orphan girls plays with some powdered cement, pretending it is snow. When the real snow comes, Slavno’s luck begins to change. The village may survive after all. Its residents already have.
I was watching the news on BBC America yesterday and got the bad news that a health crisis is looming in eastern Chad. Thousands of refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan have been living in makeshift refugee camps, and malnutrition and disease are making inroads. Attending the Amnesty International USA Annual General Meeting in Milwaukee on March 23–25 gave me all of the grim statistics from Darfur—400,000 dead, 2 million displaced—and prepared me for bad news out of Chad. Another regional catastrophe of biblical proportions is teetering on the brink.
In one of those not-entirely-coincidental coincidences, actress Mia Farrow, a United Nations UNICEF goodwill ambassador, condemned director Steven Spielberg for participating in staging the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Spielberg visited China in March to help with the preparations—one assumes that he will have a hand in the filming of the event. Farrow pointed out what I learned, and what was protested at Chinese consulates across the country on March 30—that China is a major funder of the holocaust in Darfur. Referring to the genius German director who filmed Olympiad, the 1933 “Nazi” Olympics in Berlin, Farrow said Spielberg risked becoming known as the “Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games.” The irony of a man who founded the Shoah Foundation to record the experiences of victims of the Nazi Holocaust now participating in an event by one of the great human rights violators on the planet certainly cannot be lost on anyone.
Farrow’s speaking out, of course, was probably meant to boost the profile of the protests and shame Spielberg and other influential voices into pressuring China to cut off funding to the Sudanese government for arms transfers. Maybe you’re tired of hearing about Darfur. Believe me, you’ll be plenty tired of hearing about Darfur AND Chad. And one country that is just starting to show some signs of distress over this conflict, the Central African Republic, can be rescued if we act to prevent the further spread of violence and population displacement. Let Steven Spielberg, the Chinese consulate, and corporate sponsors of the Beijing Olympics (Coca-Cola is one) know that any country that encourages the destruction and displacement of 2.4 million people does not deserve their support.l