“We who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead.” This quote from W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz proves a useful reference when considering Sergei Loznitsa’s new documentary of the same name. The film takes its title from the German author’s book, but to suggest it’s an adaptation would be misleading. Rather, Loznitsa’s enigmatic and thought-provoking piece is in dialogue and concert with many of the ideas and facets of Sebald’s text; the blending of fact and fiction, architecture as history and, most notably, the complexity of collectively remembering the past.
When asked about his Holocaust drama Son of Saul, Hungarian director László Nemes explained that he made the film because it dawned on him that the number of people with actual memory of the events were grower fewer and fewer. A similar thought struck Loznitsa when he visited Buchenwald concentration camp and balked at the realisation that he was there as a tourist – as would be the case for almost every other visitor to such sites today. Half a century ago, visiting these places was an act of remembrance but that’s hardly what is seen in the first locked-off, monochrome shots of Austerlitz which include visitors taking selfies against metal gates with ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ wrought into them.
The entire film is a procession of such shots, each lasting three or four minutes and unobtrusively observing the crowds coursing through the concentration camps at Dachau and Sachsenhausen, which are both in Germany. As with his other documentaries, Loznitsa forgoes commentary, instead allowing – or is that challenging – the audience to engage with the images he presents and what they mean. It’s difficult not to be repulsed by those initial scenes, there’s a temptation to decry the selfie generation for not adhering to the suitable decorum for their surroundings but this is too simplistic. There’s a conflict inherent in the idea of a memorial becoming an exhibit and, as Loznitsa reminds us, educational.
We begin with the voices of individuals kept to a murmur – the throng and the incessant clicking of cameras is the aural subject. However, as it continues the exemplary sound design (by Vladimir Golovnitski and Ivo Heger) begins to pick out conversations and it would seem that the filmmakers even dub in some choice snips of dialogue to emphasise their point. We see jovial crowds and reflective individuals, and remember that for some the only way understand such things is to be confronted by them in some way, while others snap away at the banalities of evil before taking a break for their lunch. Loznitsa’s observations lay bare humanity in a place that famously denied it and raise innumerable questions about how and why we must remember atrocities. Austerlitz will reward audiences with riches to match their level of scrutiny and reflection.
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Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson