Review: ‘#uploading_Holocaust’

Dok Leipzig 2016

11 mins read

(Germany/Austria/Israel, 75 min.)
Dir. Sagi Bornstein, Udi Nir


I am sitting in the youngest audience I have been surrounded by in years—and this is not a TIFF Next Wave youth programme or a concert doc screening. The place is a large, sold-out Cinestar theatre at DOK Leipzig, Germany’s oldest and Europe’s second biggest documentary film festival, with a sea of eager 18–28 year-olds awaiting the world premiere of #uploading_Holocaust.

One could see the Israeli-German-Austrian co-production by Tel Aviv-based filmmaker duo Sagi Bornstein and Udi Nir as an Austerlitz for YouTube-socialized millennials, with kids monkeying around on the way to the Majdanek extermination camp, chaperoned by alternately esoteric, efficient and hurried guides—“Now a quick little march to the gas chambers…” It’s just that these are not Italian or German tourists as in Sergei Loznitsa’s classic static-camera doc (also at DOK Leipzig, previously at TIFF), but Jewish teenagers looking for their great-grandparents’ graves in the Polish woods, all the while filming themselves and each other with wobbly cameras of differing image quality.

The establishing shot is not the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate but aptly jagged drone footage that provides a dizzying aerial view of the Auschwitz concentration camp accompanied by a jarring diegetic motor hum. Over the next 75 minutes we get immersed in clips montaged from 30,000 YouTube videos. The mini-films have been uploaded, with the encouragement of Israel’s Ministry of Education, by Jewish high-school students (plus some teachers and parents) who have been participating in a weeklong private initiative founded by a teacher-survivor called Journey to Poland. The programme, less history lesson than group therapy, has been running since 1987, and the early footage takes us back to the beginning of the World Wide Web. A quarter of Israeli students have thus visited the Holocaust sites—camps, memorials, and execution grounds—and have uploaded their impressions, thoughts, and feelings on YouTube, creating a vast and chaotic archive. Every single videographer, editor, creator and on-screen participant is credited and was approached for permission, an organizational feat in itself.

The real feat is how the filmmakers shaped such an engaging documentary distillation and composition out of this massive material. The film doesn’t explain, but shows and juxtaposes, leaving room to explore through roughly a three-step content development from information, to reflection, to increasing emotion. The fragmented images are assembled into a mosaic of horrors committed in the past, to highlight a present-day desire to connect with a traumatic history. The filmmakers described in the Q&A how they watched, categorized, labeled, and tagged for two “difficult” years, finally realizing they had to let go of the viewing phase to make visual and technical decisions in order to create their own film out of others’. The unassuming but just-right new music score written for the film by Uri Agnon helps synthesize the cuts and changing perspectives. The bracket closes with eerily peaceful moments at the end of the film, in quiet images of the whispering Polish woods that contrast the opening machine noise of the drone.

Formulaic greetings from family members at home—invocations and assurances of love and support, affirmations of Jewish survival, unity, and community—are interspersed throughout the marathon selfies and (re)create a fraught atmosphere, not alleviated by references to current “terrorist” threats to Israel and encouragement to join the army. One audience member perceived the framework of the journey as cultish, and you can tell that the filmmakers are aware of the feel their film creates but want to keep their distance from the subject matter. The stakes of course are high when teen-aged fourth-generation boys and girls are sent abroad to confront an inhuman past. They should be spending their school trip on a beach in Nice like any other European student, but instead they are crammed into death trains and gas chambers. The pedagogical rationale and validity can be questioned, but it is clearly and fiercely born out of the sense of the impossibility of “teaching the Holocaust.” Challenged by a teacher who says, “I want you to start feeling!”, one boy worries that something is wrong with him, talking to others about not feeling “it.” Feel it they will, at the last station, though whether in a healthy catharsis or near-dangerous exorcism remains up to the viewer to determine. In the end they are trying or are urged to experience what they can’t, and thankfully don’t have to for real. Cut to a karaoke night and a fries-eating competition, shared on the web for posterity.

The trips also feel like dares, sticking it to “the Germans” with a resounding, “We are still here.” (My seat neighbour objects to the national generalization, missing the distancing modifier of “Nazi” Germany.) The victims had no agency; their descendants at least want temporary ownership of the spaces: #occupy_Holocaust.

After the screening, the young Israeli filmmaker duo reflects on the question of how they crafted a meaningful dramaturgy out of hundreds of hours of web clips. A subliminal arc from cheerful plans and hopes to overload and confusion (“Where are we? Is this a camp or a memorial?”) to collective breakdown is carried by clustered tropes of places and gestures and recurring characters: hotel rooms and hallways, bus rides, clearly mapped out rituals, reenactments, group prayers, expressive dance choreographies, with contributions from witnesses as well as girls fixing their hair for the cameras. Hundreds of thousands of protagonists could easily have resulted in a loss of anchors and identification, but Bornstein and Nir skillfully and smoothly weave narratives and circle back to faces and ideas to create meaningful stories of diffuse communal pain, desperate searches for understanding, and connection and consolation, reconciling cruelly and arbitrarily arrested histories.

Just when I wonder why we never see encounters with local Polish or German visitors in this “found footage,” a sad and mortifyingly awkward scene plays out. A young German woman comes on the scene and starts sticking yellow “hearts of love” on the group’s lapels, including that of a frozen Orthodox man, in a helpless attempt to reach out.The teacher, in Hebrew and not entirely unfounded, briefly suspects a Christian missionary. The children of perpetrators and victims meet but don’t come together in this nearly tragicomic scene. Incongruity abounds. In another scene, we meet a survivor who talks about meeting infamous Nazi doctor Mengele. “He was so handsome!”, she recalls. “Why do Jews always have to point out how handsome he was,” an exasperated teacher moans. “Because no one could believe he could be evil,” she says.

The film, which was developed out of a previous DOK Leipzig co-production market, is part of veteran Gebrüder Beetz Production’s forceful push for cross-media formats. What started out as a “normal” doc project led to questions of the role of the filmmaker and the ongoing authenticity debate during the research phase—including discarded ideas of a mixed (found plus directed) film—to this “compilation,” as Nir calls it. According to Christian Beetz, the website launched in tandem is meant to facilitate a discourse with German youths about Holocaust education and put them in direct contact with Israeli kids.

After the premiere screening, a 17-year-old German YouTube blogger enthusiastically hugs the surprised producer, bro-style. While the hashtagged title teases the mediation of today’s confrontation with the sites of distant horrors, at the end of the day the film can only tackle the “#taping” of these clips. Critical media meta-questions that a Harun Farocki would have asked are not broached, at least on the surface (perhaps they will on the web site). In any case, it likely would have exploded the already dense and intense film. The filmmakers had considered filming the reactions to viewing the clips but decided against it, they explain, to keep it contained and relatable in just over an hour.

“The Jewish people are alive!”, the groups defiantly shout at the empty spaces of genocide year after year, collaged in the film. If you only watch one film this year about Holocaust education, make it this one, and catch a glimpse of the challenges of present and future Jewish commemoration through the eyes of the fourth generation of survivors.

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