Dachau and Sachsenhausen
Germany-based Ukrainian documentary director Sergei Loznitsa takes us into the former Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen. The first word we can make out is “1945”, followed by a shot of the infamous Auschwitz gate that reads “Arbeit macht frei”, work sets you free. The scene is set. You may wonder anyone would want to visit concentration camps while on vacation but this is not something new. We have had several documentaries that focus on tourism and the Holocaust and there is something here that validates who we are and that we are alive while six million others are not.
Loznitsa indirectly follows some of the “Holocaust tourists” with very long shots from fixed camera angles and the framing shots through doors and windows while looking in not out give an intriguing perspective.
I understand that Loznitsa’s preoccupation with these tourists goes beyond the many people coming to the camps. Some are uncomfortable in the face of the camera.
But despite the carefully curated images, do we really understand what happened in the camps. We see people smiling and even eating as others are lost in reverie and holding tight to someone else. Some are totally disrespectful and disinterested.
Holocaust memorials have sprung up in cities around the world and they serve their purpose as a place where we can come and think about the horrors and the indignations that our people experienced at the hands of the Nazis. So then we want to know what is the real purpose of visiting the physical camps where genocide took place.
Loznitsa’s enigmatic and thought-provoking piece is in dialogue and concert with many of the ideas and facets of W.G. Sebald’s book of the same name, “Austerlitz”. The book brought fact and fiction together and told about the complexity of collectively remembering the past.
When Loznitsa visited Buchenwald concentration camp and realized that he was there as a tourist, something snapped within. Fifty years ago visiting these places was an act of remembrance but that is not what we see in opening monochrome shots of the film. We see tourists taking selfies against metal gates with ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ wrought into them. From that point on the film is a procession of such shots, each lasting three or four minutes and unobtrusively observing the crowds walking through the death camps. There is no commentary thus the audience is challenged to engage with the images on the screen. Some of what we see is repulsive and we wonder where is the proper decorum for visiting these camps. There is an inherent conflict inherent in the idea of a memorial becoming an exhibit and, as Loznitsa reminds us, an educational tool.
We begin with the voices of individuals that have been kept to a murmur and we hear the clicking of cameras. – the throng and the incessant clicking of cameras is the aural subject. We begin to conversations and see jovial crowds and reflective individuals, and remember that for some the only way to understand such things is to be confronted by them in some way. At the same time, there are those who continue taking pictures of evil and its banalities. What Loznitsa’s observations show us is humanity in a place that furiously and famously denied it. Questions as to why it is necessary to remember come forward.
Cinematographer Jesse Mazuch carefully set up cameras in the most effective positions around a public space and let them run, not caring if they’re noticed. One of these places was Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp. The tourists are engaged in visiting a site of horror: important things happened there, and the desire to visit such horrific places seems to be ingrained in us. Camera positions are set at a respectful distance, and are not interested in the exhibits themselves (except, in one case, some incineration ovens), but in the behavior of the people visiting. Moral complexity emerges straightaway. As dozens of people move in and out of rooms and are glimpsed disappearing into and emerging out of darkness, we cannot help but imagine the prisoners that were tortured, punished and murdered here: political prisoners, Russian soldiers and German ‘traitors’, homosexuals and Jews.
As a viewer, we are quickly tempted to sit in judgment of individual behaviors amongst the crowds. When we see a beautiful young teenage girl gets her portrait taken in front of the iron gate that bears the infamous legend Arbeit Macht Frei at its centre, we are astounded at her lack of understanding and disrespect for where she is and what happened there, but coming to this conclusion, we are also grading the worthiness of human beings. The hundreds of tourists look bored and lost and sometimes inappropriately playful do at times and they invite contempt. We see the way they are dressed and wonder why anyone would come to such a place in a t-shirt and shorts.
As we eventually and gradually get to eavesdrop on the tour guides who fill in the historical background, we can see that the place does have a somber, sobering emotional effect on many. The sequences of images themselves keeps us wondering if any were set up: especially when you get very pretty people walking into a shot that seems so beautifully backlit.
What we get by the end of the documentary is a rounded look at humanity, and of hope, despite the horror of human crimes and the need to revisit them. There is the suggestion that people are not dealing with the real purpose of the memorials; he they statues, simply plaques or former death camps.
This film is presented as ninety minutes without commentary and consists of series of long, lingering shots of tourists walking around Dachau and Sachsenhausen, a former concentration camp near Berlin. We see that most of the visitors seem as if they are walking in a shopping mall or perhaps an art museum. They look aimless, restless, tired and bored.
Despite its lack of narrative or plot, the film is oddly compelling. The disconnect between setting and character provokes a range of feelings. The sight of crowds pouring into a room is creepily reminiscent of Holocaust prisoners being shepherded into train cars or gas chambers. Footage of visitors trying to get their tour headphones to work is amusing but then it really is not. Some visitors joke around or act like they’d rather be anywhere else and this makes the viewer quite angry if not appalled.
We see that it is easy to be swallowed up by the tourist experience and to forget to engage with the significance of a place. None of the tourists captured here are blatantly disrespectful. Rather they are nonchalant and somewhat self-absorbed in the 21st-century way. There are plenty of selfies in “Austerlitz”. Loznitsa’s point is not about individual tourists — whether they choose to take a silly selfie or reflect deeply throughout their visit. The message, he has said, is that visiting a concentration camp should not be presented like any other mundane tourist experience. To me that message is brutally clear.