From a monument to history’s worst horrors to a box on a tourist checklist, Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary ‘Austerlitz’ explores how concentration camps are experienced today, pointing to the question of how memory can be preserved.
S eventy years later, the Holocaust continues to pose a challenge for filmmakers. Dramas like “Son of Saul” emerge with fresh formal experiments, while older works like “Shoah” endure as authoritative historical records.
Sergei Loznitsa’s disquieting new documentary “Austerlitz,” which premieres at the Venice International Film Festival, aims to show how the Nazi concentration camps are experienced today — not by survivors or historians, but the tourists who visit them.
“The people who came to these places 40 years ago came with a different purpose than people now,” Mr. Loznitsa said in a Skype conversation from Latvia, where he is shooting his next film. “Now, people don’t remember, and sometimes I think they don’t even understand where they are and what the places are about.”
The cameras in “Austerlitz” observe crowds of visitors at the concentration camps of Dachau, north of Munich, Germany, and Sachsenhausen, just outside Berlin. Dressed in T-shirts with logos like “Cool Story, Bro” or “Jurassic Park,” they mill about the grounds and buildings, sometimes listening to guides describe how the mass killings took place. The images are filmed in black and white, the camera still and the general mood unnervingly indifferent, or distracted.
Dachau initially detained political prisoners but later became an extermination camp for all those who were considered ‘unfit’ for the new Germany, to include Jews, artists, intellectuals, the physically and mentally handicapped and homosexuals.
Mr. Loznitsa describes the film as an effort to reckon with an existential crisis he felt on his first visit to Buchenwald. He was there doing side research for a project called “Babi Yar” about mass murders in World War II Ukraine.
“I realized, in front of the crematorium, that I was myself like a tourist,” he said. “And at the same time, I thought, ‘How can I be? How can I stay there?’
“It was like in a Kafka novel. I can’t be in this place,” Mr. Loznitsa continued. “And my question is: How can we keep memory? Is it possible in general to share this memory?”
The burden of the past feels especially heavy in “Austerlitz,” as the camps are treated as just another stop on a sightseeing list.
Mr. Loznitsa has never shied away from dwelling on the uncomfortable truths of history, or from finding new ways of expressing them. Born in Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union, he grew up in Ukraine and pursued a film career after first studying mathematics.
His earlier documentaries “Blockade” and “Revue” used archival footage to portray the siege of Leningrad in World War II and daily life under Communism, respectively. He broke out at the Cannes International FIlm Festival in 2010 with the fiction feature “My Joy,” about a truck driver who takes a wrong turn into the dark side of Russian countryside.
His follow-up, “In the Fog,” told a story of wartime collaboration, while another Cannes premiere, “Maidan,” returned him to documentary films with an on-the-ground view of the protests in the square of that name in Kiev, Ukraine, in late 2013 and early 2014.
At last year’s Venice festival, Mr. Loznitsa presented “The Event,” a found-footage chronicle of the fall of the Soviet Union as viewed in Leningrad. “Austerlitz” has its world premiere in this year’s edition out of competition, before heading to the Toronto International Film Festival. As with his other nonfiction work, it shares a hands-off approach, without voice-over or commentary.
Loznitsa’s ‘Austerlitz’: the official trailer.
“I never use it. I think that cinema itself tells us much more than somebody who can comment,” Mr. Loznitsa said of the technique. “And sometimes it works.”
Boyish at 51, zipped up tight in a black vest, Mr. Loznitsa spoke after a long day of shooting his next film, “A Gentle Creature,” a story inspired by Dostoevsky, about a woman seeking justice for her incarcerated husband. Yet the filmmaker said the questions raised by “Austerlitz” have stayed with him.
The concentration camps hold a special resonance for him because of his own ancestors’ experiences under the Soviet regime.
“I don’t know the destiny of part of my relatives, because during the Second World War, some of them disappeared,” he said.
“Austerlitz” captures something of this feeling of absence over its 94 minutes. The mundane sights of tourists obscure the history of the camps, and scenes of crowds at ease today are a reminder that similar crowds were massacred there 70 years ago. Occasionally, a macabre echo occurs in the tour guides’ patter. (“This is not the last time you’ll be able to eat,” one assures her hungry listeners.)
“The tourists are just looking at things like they are from another world,” Mr. Loznitsa said. “‘Ah, interesting.’ Like consumers. It’s selling horror in small pieces. It looks like that, when you stay outside and just observe people.”
His techniques and expressive use of ambient audio align him with the observational cinema practiced by Frederick Wiseman, Chantal Akerman and others. He is modest about “Austerlitz” in relation to Holocaust classics such as Alain Resnais’s “Night and Fog,” and cites a preference for Liliana Caviani’s “The Night Porter” over “Son of Saul.”
And of his own film’s literary namesake — the acclaimed 2001 novel by W.G. Sebald that centers on a man discovering his Jewish identity — Mr. Loznitsa varied between calling his work an adaptation and a “variation.”
But “Austerlitz” the film is perhaps above all a haunting meditation, in which the physical history of the camps battles with oblivion. In one sequence, visitor after visitor takes a selfie with the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign on the camp’s front gate.
“It means that Goebbels won,” Mr. Loznitza said, with a certain resigned humor that ran through his comments. It is easy to be unnerved by the casual manner and lack of emotion of many visitors in the film, though others are shown in states of contemplation as they reckon with the camps.
Yet he said that mere knowledge of the historical record is not sufficient. The sites shown in “Austerlitz” must be approached with a sense of reverence, rather than duty.
“I think it must be like a church,” he said. “If you want to pray for the souls of all the people who are in the ground in this place, then come.”