In one of the very first shots of Sergei Loznitsa’s new movie, a small group of people is waiting. They look like tourists, but there are no clues as to where they are. They could be anywhere at this point in the film: Disneyland, the London Dungeon, a music festival. Out of the small group a young man sticks out. On his black t-shirt reads the following in large white letters:
“Cool story bro.’”
This affirmation seems to echo the now cult line in French cinema, delivered by actor Jean Dujardin in OSS 117: Lost in Rio (Michel Hazanavicius, 2009). When being told that Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann had to pay for his crimes, the uncultivated spy asks: “which are…?” “The participation in the genocide” replies the perplexed Mossad agent sitting across him.
“Oh that? What a story…”, replies the French spy.
Throughout the movie, Hubert Bonnisseur de la Bathe (Dujardin’s character) wanders in the city of Rio, lost in a place but mostly a time that remains totally beyond him, who’s unable to grasp any of it (except for the ladies). Unaware of the political, economical or social tensions at play around him, he is driven by the very few goals that are both his professional mission and his personal pleasure, carrying his camera wherever he goes, indiscriminately photographing the elegant women and the slums of the Brazilian metropolis. His disconnection makes him an appalling buffoon, only salvaged by his absolute and naïve dedication, which eventually makes him a touching character, despite his outrageous nature – a classic comedy trope. Like this character, many of the tourists in Austerlitz seem lost, at odds and oblivious to everything around them. The places they are visiting are the former Nazi concentration camps of Dachau and Sachsenhausen.
Did Loznitsa direct a comedy?
I can only imagine the director and his editor’s Danielius Kokanauskis surprise when they realized that the images gathered in the former concentration camps were primarily about t-shirts. Much like de la Bathe, a character of the 1940/50s catapulted in the midst of the 1970s counter-culture changing world order, those 21st century quotational pieces of garment are sent back into the heart of 20th century horror. The tension resulting from it seems analogous, between consternation and laughter.
Dark humor for dark tourism. The latter concept is a fairly recent field of study, for an act that is both ancient and only contemporaneous to the concept of tourism itself. In broad terms, it is the act of visiting locations associated with great tragedies, dark events. It doesn’t take much for it to become controversial, as one could include a great many places into it. Is visiting the pyramids dark tourism? The coliseum? Medieval inquisition dungeons? Is any type of tourism dark?
One the very first reflexes the Lumière Brothers had once they patented their invention was to send operators across the world to capture images and bring them back for people to see. From the get-go, cinema was linked to an activity much akin to tourism which had been booming for a number of decades already. Naturally cinema played an important part in having it spread globally (or rather, from Europe to other places), as it reported the world for you to see and was parallel to ever-expanding transportation possibilities, both taking part in an exponentially increasing technologization. Both activities are in a constant struggle or compromise between leisure, entertainment, playfulness and erudition, education or reflection. Both rely on heavy technical networks that have profound ecological and social impacts on the places they “invade”. Both often have to deal with the following question that Austerlitz raises in its turn: how to give an account of a place that has a specific history, preserving it as the result of a certain historical movement, and not only a geographical space?
Loznitsa’s movie seems to provide the beginning of an answer by creating a world in which this preoccupation is removed – an environment in which mediation is absent, or feigns to be, and story is equated to facts. The Ukrainian director’s first key decision is the refusal of reframing, readjusting or modifying a shot in any way. No focus pulling, no camera movement, just a frame that surveys whatever will come in and out of it. It is an extreme strictness that ultimately turns into a limitation for the movie as a cinematic piece, making it a rhetorical device that starts calling attention to itself, feeling much like a system.
Could it be a necessary limitation, though? By being so static, the film focuses on human movement, people as a mass (a recurrent theme in his filmography). With the grammar of an objective image, he curates a very specific vision of the space he is exploring and the link its visitors have with its history: a place where one “follows the guide” or follows someone else, where everyone is followed and preceded by another person. It is an inevitably striking and powerful contrast with a similar movement that was governing the camps when they were used as initially intended: the mass and methodical murder of “visitors”.
The contrast is then heightened by the way the guides navigate tourists through the venue. Factual to the extreme in their explanations, they come out as systematically insensitive when juxtaposed with both our knowledge of what happened there and the apathetic lack of participation or attention from people taking part in the tour. What becomes blatant is the absence of mediation, the absence of stories and their telling. “Cool story bro”, but what story? Visiting the pyramids and being told how many blocks of stones were used to build it would certainly leave an impression on someone like me. Being informed about the number of people who died building them or the inventive mechanisms to transport such giant blocks will satisfy my curiosity about how all of it was technically possible. But only careful (hi)storytelling will allow me to not only grasp the full measure of the endeavor, but also to empathize with all the lives involved in it, from the Pharaos to the slaves. Of course mediation has its own limits that can only be completed by imagination, but the same goes with a concentration camp. What is staged in Austerlitz is mostly the utter absence of it. Just numbers and figures. No testimony, no poem, no storytelling.
As an outcome, visitors take matters into their own hands, with cringing results. In front of a range of pillories, tourists pose as executed prisoners to get their pictures taken. If the gas chambers were open, you would surely see people miming a pleasant shower time. Not certain how to engage with the meaning of the place, or afraid to do so, some cope with it at times innocently, at times cynically, restaging their own story.
This hints at another similarity between tourism and cinema: a need for reenactment, often misplaced. Just as the number of exploitative historical film is vast, tourism comes with its share of very doubtful mediation. In North America or Brazil, one can take a “slavery tour”, an example of when the appetite for reenactment sets aside any questioning on the form such retelling should take.
Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1956), perhaps the seminal movie about concentration camps, was already troubled by this contrast. Concerning crematoriums and the way they were designed, the film remarked: “they could look like a postcard. Later, nowadays [in 1956] tourists have their picture taken in front of it.” Surely, time plays a part in making those questions less pressing and certainly less shocking. Don’t we say comedy is tragedy plus time?
But here again Loznitsa individuates a mass to question the audience in its rapport to things we are constantly confronted with: stories, history and the practice of tourism. As you would expect, no definite answer is given, quite the contrary: the film stages its own premise by both confusing the spectator and avoiding to represent a certain typology of visitors, in short by creating purposeful gaps.
One of Frederick Wiseman’s brilliant qualities is the capacity of familiarizing an audience with a space. Filming a museum, an opera house, a cabaret, a mental institution and many more, he manages, through rhymes, repetition and temporality, to make the spectator recognize places and faces he has never seen. Austerlitz does the exact opposite. Following the steps of some of his own previous works or documentaries like Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel, 2012) or There is no Sexual Rapport (Raphaël Siboni, 2011), Loznitsa offers minimal or no context. He (almost) never goes back to a former shot, barely builds any type of geographical understanding of the place as a whole, purposely confusing the spectator as to where they are exactly, and what they’re looking at. If they’re lucky enough, they might catch a bit of conversation indicating what they might be looking at.
As for the exclusion of visitors, Loznitsa does not show anyone or group of people doing anything else than being a group of “sheeples” – except for one instant that naturally stands out, when a close up of a woman takes most of the screen, visibly touched by the vision of an object or something the audience members will never see. Structurally, this is reminiscent of snippets seen in the two movies previously mentioned: in Leviathan, when a sailor falls asleep in front of the television amidst harassing labor; in There is no Sexual Rapport, when two actors show true tenderness amidst what is also harassing labor (but of another type).
Unlike, for example, cathedrals or religious edifices, wherein most people are likely to show respect and be reverent while not being forced into any duty, the prevalent attitude towards historical sites is a rather different one. The best illustration of that comes from contrasting abandoned religious sites with functioning ones: where the former have gained a simple esthetic value, as well as the idle pleasures linked to it, the latter still carry the weight of whatever scripture or doctrine they uphold, humbling most visitors walking through their gates.
The camps of Dachau and Sachsenhausen are located near largely populated areas –Munich and Berlin – and are therefore more prone to mass tourism. That being said, having visited other concentration camps myself and having been involved in the duty of remembrance for some time now, I can testify that they can be, and often are, places of rituals (religious or not), of remembrance, sharing and emotion. I have heard and have been told stories in those very places; I’ve even had a survivor narrating his life in one of them in front of me. As our Ukrainian guide points out, the encounter of the “memorial with the museological” doesn’t come without complications. But it is possible. This movie is an account of a reality, of an impression and a fear to see those places being emptied of their meaning as they are being emptied of the diaries, the novels, the songs, the poems that narrate the stories of the people who used to populate these walls and that should forever haunt them. Night and Fog already closed on these words: “We tell ourselves it was all confined to one country, one point in time. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us and a deaf ear to the never-ending cries.”
Entering an era of post-truth, alternative facts and such neologism, an era in which the president of one of the powers that liberated many of those camps balks at hearing the “never-ending cries”, balks at naming Jews, Gypsies or any minority as primary victims of those places, the movie doesn’t bring any educational solutions. All of that material exists already, and is in fact readily available. Having people read them up is the difficulty, having people decide to understand and empathize is the issue.
What Loznitsa’s formalist program does is stage the ways in which the act of remembering summons many different mediators and the ways they are inevitably interconnected. Memorials alone are nothing but esthetic objects to take a picture with; museums make the (at times reassuring) statement that its content is dead, while remaining mostly factual in nature, whereas modes of expression appeal to the more emotional side of an audience, that is likely to fall into pure fictional distance without the work of the aforementioned institutions. Even historical sites, which can be thought as the junction of those three aspects of culture, are not immune to the denial of their very own existence, or at least their irrelevance. Eventually the film itself states its own fragility: without any knowledge of those types of mediators, nothing about Austerlitz would in fact feel eerie at all. Losnitza’s movie works on the delicate moral premise that remembering the holocaust does matter, which in turn can arise only from all the elements cited above.
Having always accepted said premise myself, doing anything but remembering seems indecent while visiting a concentration camp. At least for now. Until, as portrayed at various points in the film, a visitor walks through the barracks looking at her phone and wearing a t-shirt that reads “Just don’t care”, while a fellow visitor’s piece of clothing informs us that “Fucking Fuck Happens”.