To call Sergei Loznitsa’s 2016 film “Austerlitz” self-reflexive would be an understatement. Self-reflexive of filmmaker Loznitsa and his quest for understanding of a painful subject, yes, but also of us, the audience, the observers. The watchers.
For “Austerlitz,” above all, is about us. About watching ourselves. Watching ourselves as tourists, hordes of logo-T- shirted and shorts-clad summer tourists, cellphones and video cameras in hand, sipping from plastic water bottles, on a day trip to a Nazi death camp.
With no interviews, music or dialogue beyond ambient sound and occasional snatches of tour guides speaking, this austere black-and-white documentary keeps the audience focused on observing the visitors as they observe the stops on their tour. Pathway to yard, door to window. We watch them as they watch. We study them as they study their surroundings. But we can’t see what they are seeing, as often they are observing something just out of frame. Are they looking at photographs, artifacts, plaques of information? Often, we can only guess.
The camera, always static, lingers meditatively before windows or doors, behind or through which the visitors travel. At first, we see no geography or perspective of where we are. And then through successive scenes we eventually see the gates with those infamous words: Arbeit Macht Frei (Work sets you free). We see barracks in the background, barbed-wire and razor-wire fencing, a white-tiled room with white-tiled autopsy tables, an open doorway through which several ovens are visible. But the focus is always on the tourists, stopping to look, frowning, pausing for a selfie.
And although the scenes are sometimes bustling, sometimes quiet, the tourists for the most part passive or pensive, I found a growing sense of unease as I watched the parade of people, chatting, taking photos, eating, sometimes smiling. Because, of course, it is impossible to forget where they are and what happened there and at thousands of other camps. (Although there is no overt identification of the camps, the film was shot at Sachsenhausen and Dachau.)
Loznitsa seems to be asking, why are we here? Is this a necessary observation of something we should never forget? Or a violation? A violation of a sacred space, a space that is literally a killing ground, a graveyard?
In his director’s note on his website (loznitsa.eu), the filmmaker says he happened upon the concentration camp site one day.
“I never thought that I would come here,” he wrote. “Passing by I saw the sign and turned off. … Cars are lined up in the parking area. It is a quiet and hot summer day. Nothing unusual.”
But he enters through the gates, and as he walks from numbered building to numbered building, he watches the tourists.
“This is the place where people were exterminated; this is the place of suffering and grief. And now, I am here. A tourist. With all the typical curiosities of a tourist. Without any notion of what it was like to be a prisoner in the concentration camp having a number, every day waiting for death, clinging to life,” he wrote. “I stand here and look at the machinery for the extermination of the human body. Traces of life, sometime ago, long ago, here and now. What am I doing here? What are all these people doing here, moving in groups from one object to another?”
These questions moved him to make the film. So now we can observe. We can watch. And we can think about what we are doing and why we are doing it.
“One can refer to the good will and the desire to sense compassion and mercy that Aristotle associated with tragedy,” Loznitsa wrote. “But this explanation doesn’t solve the mystery. Why a love couple or a mother with her child goes on a sunny summer day to look at the ovens in a crematorium? To try to come to grips with this, I made this film.”
I saw “Austerlitz” at the Maryland Film Festival in the theater in MICA’S Brown Center. The 5 p.m. show on a Thursday evening was the first of two screenings for the film. There were less than two dozen people in the theater. After the film ended and the lights came up, no one clapped, unusual after a film-festival screening. But I don’t think the lack of applause meant no one appreciated the film. For me, it was because although the film was a quiet and observational meditation, I left feeling stunned, sad and uneasy. It made me think, which is what the best films do. And making us think, I’m sure, is exactly what Loznitsa had in mind.
For more on Ukrainian filmmaker Loznitsa and to watch a trailer for the film, visit loznitsa.eu. The film is currently on the film festival circuit and not yet in distribution.