Friday 25 August 2017

The Current Cinema - Neil McGlone's response to Sergei Loznitsa's doco AUSTERLITZ

The post below by British curator and cinema historian Neil McGlone was sent in as a further response to  Sergei Loznitsa's major new documentary Austerlitz. Peter Hourigan reviewed the film here after seeing it at MIFF a matter of days ago. At present there are no further screenings in Australia, at least that have been announced.

Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz: Concentration Camp as Theme Park for the Selfie Generation
Sergei Loznitsa
I recently attended a screening of Sergei Loznitsa’s “observational” documentary, Austerlitz, at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. At the start of the film the auditorium was full, but by twenty minutes into the film more than half the audience had walked out, the majority of whom were in their 20’s and 30’s.

Did they leave because they were upset by the content and found it disturbing? Did they leave because they were bored? Or did they leave because the film was about their generation and it felt too close to the truth?

Loznitsa’s documentary about why people visit concentration camps certainly raises more questions than it answers. The film is made up of a series of long 8 to 10 minute static shots as the camera observes tourists while they make their way around the concentration camps at Sachsenhausen and Dachau. It opens with a very long static shot of tourists pouring into the camp at Sachsenhausen, we see them arrive in their sunglasses, t-shirts emblazoned with brand names and expletives, baseball caps and shorts entering through the main gate of the camp where we see the words “Arbeit macht frei”. The Nazi’s sick joke that “work sets you free” – nobody was ever set free from the concentration camps for doing a good job.

It is here, at these historic gates, that we witness in Loznitsa’s film people stopping to take selfies under the sign; people either taking pictures of themselves with the sign in the background or loved ones taking pictures of each other ensuring they get the sign in their photos. This opening shot lingers as we watch more and more people smiling for the camera under the sign, making us the viewer more and more uncomfortable and uneasy in our seats.

Loznitsa believes that people use their cameras as a form of protection. He says that we are losing a sense of history or memory of how the camps are set up. He thinks his film is more about the people that live now and their behavior. He says, “People come to the camps and they experience death from a safe distance but they have no connection to it. They lose fear and fear protects them. They are curious but have no understanding of what happened. As generations continue to come to the camps, the understanding grows less.”

So, did over half the audience leave because they didn’t have the patience to watch something meditative like this? Something they feel no connection with, that they feel detached from it and they find it difficult to relate to what happened?

As Loznitsa’s film continues we see teenagers wandering around the camp with their heads buried deep in their mobile phones, dragged around by their parents. A guy with a long selfie-stick capturing everything he sees in a complete 360-degree pan of his surroundings. A tour guide is showing people around a room where horrific executions took place and his group are not really paying attention to his talk, but laughing and joking among themselves.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing images in the film is that of a tour guide telling a group of tourists about a set of large wooden posts in the camp that were used to tie prisoners to while they were tortured, disemboweled and left to decompose as a warning to other members of the camp. As the group dissipates we see a man walk up to one of the posts, pretends to be tied it while his wife takes a photo of him.

These are not the only disturbing scenes we see. In another scene in a tiled hospital medical room at the camp where bodies were dismembered, often while the person was still alive and not anaesthetized, a wife takes a picture of her husband standing against one of the tiled medical tables. There is the scene outside the crematorium ovens where thousands of bodies were burned on a daily basis at the camp and a boyfriend and girlfriend take a picture of themselves smiling in front of the ovens.

The scenes continue like this as Loznitsa’s camera takes us on a journey through the camp with people sitting on the grass eating their sandwiches and drinking as if having a picnic and a break from the “attractions”.

There is however one scene in the film which fills you with a sense of hope; one of the only close-up shots in the film of a young girl who we witness reading an epitaph and as we watch we see how moved she is by what she has just read, she stands there looking around her unable to move and at the point of tears.

The film’s final scene is of people leaving the camp through the same gates they entered and the sign above, “Arbeit macht frei”. We see a young girl carrying a selfie-stick and she is with what we assume are her parents. She stops and takes a picture of herself in front of the gates and makes sure she has everything in the frame for her picture. Then, not satisfied, she moves back a bit further and asks her parents to join her so that they are all in the photograph along with the gates behind her. The picture is taken, but still not satisfied she and her parents move back a third time so they are right up against the gates for a final shot, all smiling at the camera.

What is our obsession with constantly taking pictures of ourselves, and more importantly why would you take these kinds of pictures at a concentration camp? Does it not show a lack of respect?

We live in an age where our phones are mobile, they have often quite high-spec cameras built in and a large proportion of our generation are obsessed with achieving a flawless look on social media, driven by the desire to share images of themselves on the likes of Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. A selfie is, after all, one part self-portrait and one part social sharing. In a study carried out by in 2014, it found that the average age of the selfie-taker was 23.7 and that in the under 40-age group more women than men take selfies. In the over 40’s men were the dominant group.

In 2016 the concentration camp at Auschwitz attracted two million visitors, which is certainly on par with matching or exceeding annual attendance at some of the smaller theme parks around the world. Listed in tourist guides for Berlin, Munich and Krakow under the Top 10 “attractions” to see are the concentration camps at Sachsenhausen, Dachau and Auschwitz respectively. Is it a question of tourism and how it connects to industrial society? These cities are all close to major airports and yet the memorial at Bergen-Belsen, which is not near any major airport, has far less visitors. The two most attended “attractions” at these camps are the main gates and the crematorium.

Loznitsa told the audience at our screening that the curators at the Dachau concentration camp placed a small light inside the crematorium oven because tourists had complained that they couldn’t see anything. He also went on to say that many parts of these camps are being replaced and repaired in order to make them look more authentic. Surely it is more about how to preserve the memory and not to reproduce it as some kind of grotesque “theatre”?

In order to preserve the barbed wire at the camp they run a current of 220v of electricity through it. Loznitsa told us that he was informed that it would be better if they ran 300v through it as it would keep it looking more realistic for longer.

Austerlitz is inspired by W.G. Sebald’s novel of the same name, about an architectural historian who was evacuated as a child from Prague via kindertransport to London in 1939 and who gradually starts to unravel the story of his past. It is a meditation on the power of memory and its role in the creation, transformation, and destruction of identity.

One question arises from Loznitsa’s film and that is of manipulation; from the hours and hours of footage that he shot of people wandering around the camps, is the documentary a fair representation of how people behaved? Was there more footage of people being visibly moved by what they saw? Did the majority of people behave disrespectfully as we see in the film? After all, the film is created in the editing and it is the director who ultimately decides what angle to show us and thus inform our reaction and response.

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