It is only two months since I visited Auschwitz. It was a tourist visit with many unique aspects. Not least, our arrival. My tour group had an appointed time to meet our guide. We were coming to Krakow and Auschwitz from Warsaw. In the summer, northern Europe carries out its road works, and we were getting caught up in long bottle necks on the highway, and delays of hours. I started getting anxious – would we get there in time? And then, I’d remind myself that we were going in comfort to a place where thousands had not wanted to get there at any time.
With this fresh in my mind, Sergei Loznitsa’s new film Austerlitz had a very personal reverberance for me. It reflects on the experience of visiting a concentration camp now that they have become tourist attractions. The film is composed of a series of long, static, contemplative shots looking not at gas chambers, crematoria, barracks, display boards, but at the throngs of tourists who are looking at these. The shots are not connected in any shot-reverse shot way, but are rather each a separate element. However, there is a degree of chronology as the film starts with tourists arriving at one of the camps, and ends as we watch them leave after their visit. There is no commentary, and no non-diegetic music or sound. The only descriptions of what may be there is when we’re close enough to hear one of the guides talking to their group.
The title is not explained in the film, but the reviewer in the Guardian noted,
The title of Sergei Loznitsa’s mysterious, challenging, disturbing film is said by the director to be inspired by the 2001 novel by WG Sebald, in which a character called Austerlitz, after an upbringing in Britain as a Kindertransport refugee, sees a Nazi propaganda film about the Theresienstadt camp and thinks that he recognises his mother. It is a book partly about the petrification and nullification of history created by official memorials. Of course, it has another meaning: the title looks in the first fraction of a second like “Auschwitz”. It is a linguistic trompe l’oeil. The horrors of the 20th century are receding into the dusty tomb of history, joining the battles of the 19th century: Auschwitz is a word that may one day have as little electrical charge as Austerlitz.
The MIFF program note mistakenly says that it was filmed at Auschwitz. Rather, it was filmed at Dachau and Sachsenhausen, camps near Munich and Berlin. However, I am sure the experience would be the same at any of the camps open to today’s visitors.
This approach takes as granted that we know about the camps. We no longer need to be told about the showers that were gas chambers, or the piles of hair, or glasses. It is over sixty years since Resnais’ Night and Fog. Instead, we can reflect on what the experience means today, and what it means for people visiting today.
The approach leaves the audience plenty of room to run through many thoughts, trivial and deeply philosophical. What do you wear to go to a place where thousands were killed? Some T-shirts certainly seem inappropriate – rather juvenile slogans ‘daring’ to use ‘fuck’. But these are probably out of place in many places. There aren’t any priests running around covering up women’s bare shoulders – but after all does it really matter. Very quickly a visit becomes a private thing, not a place to show off yourself.
I couldn’t help noticing in fact how it did become a private matter, even when you’re among the throngs visiting on a lovely summer’s day. You see this is in a simple moment – one person holding a door open for the person behind him. There is none of that eye contact we’re used to. The door holder does this without expecting any acknowledgement of his gesture. The person coming through is lost in their own thoughts anyway.
In fact, what are these thoughts? This is something the film can’t communicate. There are no talking heads exploring the experience. This is both appropriate and a limitation of the film. Perhaps it is the right approach – because it is what such a visit means to you that is important, not what someone else made of it.
We can be critical of some of the people at the end turning the exit gates into an excuse for some more selfies. But perhaps for them this is a legitimate part of their visit – a reminder that they were able to come and go freely past gates with the notorious slogan, Arbeit Macht Frei.
Loznitsa’s film will not replace any of the films already made on this subject, but it is a unique perspective, and repays the time spent allowing it to provide you a space for your own reflections.