Sergei Loznitsa, 2016
Ostensibly a documentary, the second Sergei Loznitsa film in this year’s film festival (along with his excoriating contemporary drama, A Gentle Creature), AUSTERLITZ straddles a hair-fine line between detached observation and deliberate orchestration. Loznitsa and his team have fashioned a deft assemblage of sound and image to serve a precise purpose, and while I can see why some feel that his choice of subject matter may be a bit of an easy target, that couldn't be further from the truth. Shot in Nazi death camps at Sachsenhausen and Dachau that have been preserved as memorials (complete with tour-guides and picnic areas), Austerlitz is a narration-free work of ‘slow cinema’ that, among other things, considers the purpose and attraction of holocaust tourism. But on a more pertinent level, the film invites viewers to converse with themselves.
Austerlitz is a more overt take on themes found in Chantal Akerman’s devastating (and more demanding) D’est (From the East, 1993), and Alain Resnais's raw and more poetic, Night and Fog (1954), two eloquent films that examine the impotence of memory and the inevitable dissolution of history. But Austerlitz has its own unique point to make, which sets it apart from most of the films one might compare it to.
As Loznitsa says in his director’s notes, the film observes the mannerisms of tourists, people who are broadly interested in everything – or whose role as tourists obliges them to be. Loznitsa aligns himself with the tourists, with whom he shares the same ‘typical curiosities’, but he also attempts to understand the impulse that drives thousands of ordinary people to spend a sunny summer’s day wandering around locations that were the scene of obscene atrocities. In this sense, Austerlitz is about the holocaust only in as much as it serves as a background to observe the present. The film is about looking and seeking, and it tries to reflect our compulsion to attend to the unfathomable darkness of humankind. Maybe these tourists are attempting, on some subliminal level, to bear witness, which may be a motivation for Loznitsa too, an attempt to reconcile indefensible barbarity with what we assume to be our common humanity, and to collectively wonder, "how could this happen?"
Employing a fixed camera long-take aesthetic to emphasise his observational intentions, Loznitsa shows people looking at the shadows of the past, but the film is also about people (us) looking at people looking – a fascination with voyeurism that is central to cinema. In this respect it's an intellectually and formally rigorous addition to his series of films that are, at least partially, about the power and purpose of images, films like Blockade (2005), Factory (2004), Revue (2008), Maidan (2014), The Event (2016), and especially Landscape (2003). Like these films, Austerlitz suggests that the harder we look the less we might see – the past evaporating before us. But the film also considers silence and stillness, the eerie sound of places that have fallen silent, beautifully underscored by an expertly composed sound design. It’s a silence that speaks to the simultaneous importance and impotence of shrines to exceptional, but by no means unprecedented, horror.
Loznitsa defies viewers to judge the endless stream of day-trippers who file in and out in orderly and respectful groups of family and friends. The inescapable and glaring fact, the central (and arguably subversive) thrust of Loznitsa’s argument, is that these people are not ‘those people’ – they are us and we are them, just as holocaust victims and perpetrators are also us and we are them. While some are obviously struck by the implications of what they see, many take it in their stride, ticking it off their holiday ‘to-do’ list as one might a visit to the Louvre or Mount Rushmore.
Decked out in branded T-shirts, the tourists are simply who they are – the grandchildren of a long-gone silent generation. It’s unsettling to register that just as many people will arrive the next day, and the next, amenable groups who will be ushered along by the well-meaning but necessarily reductive patter and proficiency of tour guides, a daily process that ultimately and ironically serves to create a curiously reassuring distance between (as well as an unnerving resemblance to) the emaciated ghosts of history and the well-fed holidaymakers of today. So to take umbrage at selfie-obsessed tourists would be to assume that we are immune to such crass displays, as if the branding and slogans on our summer-wear doesn’t on some level provide a similarly reassuring distance from not just past horrors, but also the conveniently overlooked realities of present-day cruelty and suffering across a raft of theatres. And we might also drink Coke ("the real thing"), give Nestlé ("good food, good life") products to our kids, wear Gap jeans (doing our bit to help that company end cancer), read books bought on income tax-avoiding Amazon, listen to music via the legitimised piracy of Spotify, fill our car with Shell petrol, and text friends on our tax-dodging Apple iPhone. Complicit? Moi? No no, I'm a victim.
On one level, Austerlitz is about the ‘normalisation’ of human suffering. Memorials that remind us of our capacity to inflict unconscionable horror unwittingly become monuments to indifference. In fact, indifference may be a key to understanding Loznitsa’s challenging film, in which he shows us one thing in order to address something else, something darker and fundamentally uncomfortable, something reflected in the fact that Donald Trump was elected to one of the most powerful political positions in the world, an event so seemingly absurd that once again we find ourselves asking, "how could this happen?"