Issue 55 (2017)

Sergei Loznitsa: Austerlitz (2016)

reviewed by Christine Engel© 2017

loznitsaSergei Loznitsa has made a film about remembering and commemorating the Nazi concentration camps—a commemoration which underlies the post-war cohesion of Europe: “And I know one thing more—that the Europe of the future cannot exist without commemorating all those, regardless of their nationality, who were killed at that time with complete contempt and hate, who were tortured to death, starved, gassed, incinerated and hanged…”, notes the Polish writer Andrzej Szczypiorski (1928–2000), a former prisoner of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. His quote is displayed in the memorial of Sachsenhausen, the main shooting location of Loznitsa’s documentary. In his black-and-white film Loznitsa raises the question of the relationship of today to its yesterday and its impact on the future. He tries to approach this topic by means of a collective portrait of the visitors to Sachsenhausen and to other concentration camps in Germany.

austerlitzThe camera observes the visitors on their walk around the memorial place in extremely long takes, each one lasting for several minutes. During the takes the camera is firmly positioned, with occasional changes of the focus, and the groups of visitors either walk towards the camera or pass by in front of it. The soundtrack presents an international mix of voices, mostly indistinct fragments of conversations, complemented with occasional explanations of the tour guide. The visitors basically follow the laid-out track along the different locations of the memorial site. But the camera’s priority is not the location itself, but the relationship between the visitors and the various rooms, facades, windows, and entrances. The film raises the question to what extent the unspeakable suffering through torture and the executions which happened at this place can touch the visitors of today, represented by people of all age groups. The answer is clear: most visitors walk through a concentration camp with the same mindset as the visitors of Jurassic Park. Casually dressed in summer T-shirts, shorts, with a rucksack and sunglasses, they look about, here and there, sometimes with interest, take photos, preferably selfies, kidding around, and take a break to relax or have a bite to eat. The neutral viewpoint of the camera duplicates the view of the visitors, by which any irony is avoided, as Mikhail Iampol’skii has mentioned in his differentiated review. The framing shots of the film, however, establish a relationship between the visitors and the former inmates: There is, on the one hand, the long unending stream of approaching visitors, which is co-incidental with the massive arrivals of prisoners, both groups entering the premises through “Tower A” with the inscription “Arbeit macht frei”. And there is, on the other hand, the visitors’ cheerful filing out of the concentration camp through the same gate, which is in stark contrast to the fates of the former inmates. Their destination was “Station Z” with the crematorium, mortuaries, and the shot-in-the-neck installation, i.e. the route which the SS cynically called the road from A to Z.

austerlitzLoznitsa’s artfully assembled film uses two intertextual references:  Austerlitz, a novel by W.G. Sebald, and the Passion of Christ in the New Testament. In the novel Austerlitz (2001), to which the title of the film refers, the first-person narrator meets the Jewish scientist Jacques Austerlitz, who—as a four-year-old in a children’s transport—was taken from Prague to Wales, where he was adopted. He did not get to know his real name until he was a young man. Later he found out through his own research that his mother had been murdered in Terezín, an extermination camp in today’s Czech Republic. Austerlitz’s scholarly interest is focused on public buildings, such as railway stations, penitentiaries, and barracks, which he understands as manifestations of modernity. In line with Michel Foucault’s study Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) Austerlitz interprets the disciplinary mechanism and power structure of such buildings as a means of creating the “docile bodies”, ideal for the new economics, politics and warfare of the modern industrial age. His special interest lies in fortification structures with their geometrical outlines, which afterwards could easily be transformed into penal institutions with highly sophisticated surveillance systems. He sees them “as an emblem both of absolute power and of the ingenuity the engineers put to the service of that power” (Sebald 2014, 13). In his film, Loznitsa especially emphasizes this aspect by showcasing the guard tower, the high wall, and the barbed wire. The concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, in the form of an equilateral triangle, was the first to be designed by SS architects and represents almost the ideal type of this model:

The facility was intended to reflect the world view of the SS in architectural terms and to subject the prisoners to the absolute power of the SS in symbolic terms, too. The architecture of the prisoners’ camp followed a “geometry of total terror”. All the buildings were grouped symmetrically around the central axis and were correlated to Tower A, the office of the SS camp leadership located on the middle of the baseline of the triangle. A single machine gun mounted on Tower A was provided with an uninterrupted field of fire over the 68 prisoners’ huts grouped around the parade ground. Built as a panopticon, Sachsenhausen functioned as a model for future camp designs. (Memorial and Museum Sachsenhausen Website)

austerlitzUnlike the visitors in the film, the characters in Sebald’s novel have a feeling of uneasiness, even fear when they enter rooms where the unimaginable comes alive and the borderline between the dead and the living becomes blurred. The first-person narrator tries to convey feelings like these when he visits Breendonck, a fortress near Antwerp, which also was used as a prison by the Nazis.

My memory of the fourteen stations which the visitor to Breendonk passes between the entrance and the exit has clouded over in the course of time, or perhaps I could say it was clouding over even on the day when I was in the fort, whether because I did not really want to see what it had to show or because all the outlines seemed to merge in a world illuminated only by a few dim electric bulbs, and cut off for ever from the light of nature. Even now, when I try to remember them, when I look back at the crab-like plan of Breendonk and read the words of the captions—Former Office, Printing Works, Huts, Jacques Ochs Hall, Solitary Confinement Cell, Mortuary, Relics Store, and Museum—the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on. […] I also recollect now that as I went on down the tunnel which could be said to form the backbone of the fort, I had to resist the feeling taking root in my heart, one which to this day often comes over me in macabre places, a sense that with every forward step the air was growing thinner and the weight above me heavier. (Sebald 2014, 21)

Austerlitz, however, is dumbfounded when he visits the ghetto museum in Terezín:

So I went round the exhibition by myself, said Austerlitz, through the rooms on the mezzanine floor and the floor above, stood in front of the display panels, sometimes skimming over the captions, sometimes reading them letter by letter, stared at the photographic reproductions, could not believe my eyes, and several times had to turn away and look out of a window into the garden behind the building, having for the first time acquired some idea of the history of the persecution which my avoidance system had kept from me for so long, and which now, in this place, surrounded me from all sides. […] I […] felt blinded by the documentation recording the population policy of the National Socialists, by the evidence of their mania for order and purity, which was put into practice on a vast scale through measures partly improvised, partly devised with obsessive organizational zeal. […] I understood it all now, yet I did not understand it, for every detail that was revealed to me as I went through the museum from room to room and back again […] far exceeded my comprehension. (Sebald 2014, 196)

Loznitsa’s camera again and again showcases the entrances to such places where you might experience a feeling of hesitancy or shudder when entering: the audience in the cinema is given the chance of an immediate impression when they are left alone for a few moments without the visitors to take a look at the steep ramp of the execution site or the stove door of the crematorium.

The central theme of Loznitsa’s film is the death of vivid memory—a second death of the inmates of the concentration camps caused by mass-cultural marketing. The commemoration industry has not only developed ways of guiding as many people as possible through the Memorials, but promotes the mindset of modernity: with their precisely timed, guided tours (“We are having a five-minute break and then meet in the prisoners’ kitchen”) and above all with their approach through statistics and technical data, the unimaginable horror gets categorized and labeled rather than experienced—a process which prevents any transformation of the consciousness. In his review, Iampol’skii (2016) comes to the conclusion that a cobbled-up perception of the past takes the place of an uncertain future. Instead of a metamorphosis, he notices an appropriation of someone else’s past as an object of desire.

austerlitzThe idea of the death of vivid memory in its full tragic dimension is pursued in the film through intertextual references to the Passion of Christ—as a second Golgotha. The film is composed in such a way that it parallels the chronology of the crucifixion of Jesus. The Passion of Christ points out the “third hour,” that is 9 a.m. in our time scheme, as the time when Jesus was crucified, which also happens to be the time when in the film the stream of visitors starts pouring in. During the first twenty minutes of the film this stream takes the form of a cross: at first, for about twelve minutes, the visitors walk through a straight parkway towards the camera—a movement which evokes the long beam of the cross. The corresponding cross beam of the crucifix is made up by the following ten-minute walk of the visitors from left to right through one of the barracks. The camera is positioned outside the building and focuses on the geometric arrangement of a row of windows behind which the visitors keep passing. Due to backlight and reflections, the people turn into vague silhouettes blurring the dividing line between the living and the dead. Apart from that the special exposure, as well as the visitors’ frequent gazes from outside through the windows into the buildings offer an additional perspective: the presumed dead people look at the visitors, an argument which was already brought up in the deliberations of Sebald’s protagonist: “[T]he longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision” (Sebald 2014, 183).

austerlitzThe solar eclipse around the sixth hour, which is mentioned in the Passion of Christ, is mirrored in the film in the words of the tour guide, who tells the visitors that the inmates of the prison building were subjected to solitary confinement in complete darkness in order to extract information from them and that most of them lost their sanity. The three crosses on Golgotha find their equivalents in the three torture stacks, where prisoners were pulled up with their stretched-out arms as the tour guide tells the visitors. In the middle of the afternoon, the visitors arrive at “Station Z” with its extermination facilities, and at the ninth hour—when Jesus died—the church bells ring for one long minute, with the camera directed at the sculpture of a dead emaciated prisoner as he is being wrapped into a shroud by two other figures. There also is an equivalent in the film for the entombment of Christ who—according to the biblical text—descended into the realm of the dead: the two big round slide-in openings of the incineration ovens of the crematorium come into view, black and full-sized, and evoke the fitting association with the gate to hell. This scene is followed up by a reference to the present: a shot of a young female visitor posing coquettishly in front of the incinerator slots with her hands stretched out sideways on the handrails, thus forming a crucifix with her whole body. If we remain with the analogy to the crucifixion scene, then this young woman (and the whole lot of visitors) is a commentary on the indifferent reaction of the soldiers and the onlookers at the crucifixion of Christ.

For the (unprepared) audience in the cinema, this feature-long documentary is certainly a challenge: without a commentary they are confronted with a film dedicated to the idea of conceptual art, which in its execution is minimalist but develops a highly complex web of associations. After his documentary The Event (Sobytie, 2015), Loznitsa’s Austerlitz is already his second documentary in a row which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival.

Christine Engel
Innsbruck, Austria

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Iampol’skii, Mikhail. 2016. “Mashina naslediia. Mikhail Iampol’skii o fil’me Sergeia Loznitsy ‘Austerlits’.” Colta 4 July.

Loznitsa, Sergei. 2016. “Turisty v krematorii.” Interview with Dmitrii  Volchek. Radio Svoboda: Kul’turnyi dnevnik. 1 September.

Sebald, W[infried] G[eorg]. 2014. Austerlitz, translated by Anthea Bell. Vintage Canada Electronic Edition.

Austerlitz, Germany, 2016
Black-and-white, 94 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Sergei Loznitsa
Cinematographers: Sergei Loznitsa, Jesse Mazuch
Sound: Vladimir Golovnitskii
Producer: Imperativ Film

Sergei Loznitsa: Austerlitz (2016)

reviewed by Christine Engel© 2017

Updated: 09 Jan 17