TIFF Review: ‘Austerlitz’

TIFF 2016

10 mins read

(Germany, 94 min.)
Dir. Sergei Loznitsa
Programme: Wavelengths (North American Premiere)


In a series of austere black-and-white compositions and an immersive soundscape, Austerlitz, the new film by Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, depicts a day at Auschwitz—that is, the present day Auschwitz-as-museum, full of bored tourists, dispassionate guides, and resolutely mute walls. Building as if by subterfuge from this apparently minimalist conceit to a profound critique of Holocaust commemoration and a densely layered sensory experience, Austerlitz is an immersion in the absence of meaning, becoming a sort of nihilistic totem to the impossibility of understanding.

The film reveals this contemporary pilgrimage to the most notorious Nazi concentration camp site, ostensibly the most intense occasion of Holocaust commemoration, is a vapid ritual. What else can you say about tourists taking selfies in front of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work sets you free”) sign? At first glance, it seems almost impossibly banal—we want catharsis, not conformist performance. But the film’s critique doesn’t stop there; Loznitsa reminds of us of Gertrude Stein’s famous comment about returning to suburban California: there is no there there. Tragically, there’s nothing to see. All that’s left of Auschwitz is boring architecture. As a guide comments late in the film, the site contains frustratingly little evidence of the atrocities committed there.

This trope has a long history in Holocaust cinema. In Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955), one of the earliest films about the Holocaust, the narrator is preoccupied with how little the concentration camp reveals about what happened there: “No description, no shot can restore their true dimension: Endless, uninterrupted fear.” Loznitsa’s innovation is to link that unknowability with current performative rituals of commemoration. There is, in fact, nothing better for the tourists to do there than to treat it as any other museum.

Interestingly, Loznitsa’s camera becomes part of the scenery as well—the people pay as much and as little attention to it as they do to the buildings, the tour guides, and each other. The film’s final shot vindicates a comparison to the films of cinema pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière. Depicting the tourists leaving Auschwitz past the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign, Loznitsa’s shot has a marked similarity to the Lumières’ famous Workers Leaving the Factory. But whereas in the Lumières’ films the camera is an object of wonder for the people in front of it, the tourists interact with Loznitsa’s camera with the same boredom as they do everything else—usually ignoring it, blithely wandering into the frame, or else trying to avoid its gaze.

The sound design reiterates this fundamental dispassion. From the very beginning, the film offers bits and pieces of tour guides’ speeches, but instead of guiding the film’s thematic development, they remain frustratingly diegetic—that is, we hear the guides when they move close to the camera, and when they move off they move lower in the mix, drowned out by the polyglot hoards taking their place. Far from its romanticized image as a window into reality, language in Austerlitz is just part of the landscape, offering no more or less information than random chatter, grey skies, or selfie sticks. None of it is even subtitled. In fact, the first thing that makes the film’s setting recognizable as Auschwitz is the German “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign—anyone unfamiliar with those words might spend half the film thinking it’s just about people in a park.

The film’s ostensible intertext is W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, about a man’s excavation of his past as a child saved by the Kindertransport. The film never quotes the novel and bears no resemblance to it whatsoever, but it’s facile to see it as just another example of the absence at the film’s centre. Sebald pioneered the view that the Holocaust could not be written about directly; as Mark O’Connell commented in the New Yorker on the 10th anniversary of Sebald’s death, his writing is “not so much a way of understanding the Holocaust, so much as it is a way of making us think about how we can’t understand the Holocaust.”

In the 1990s, the French historian Pierre Nora coined the term lieu de mémoire to express the insight that collective remembrance, far from being a fact of everyday life that is incorporated into a coherent worldview, is in fact invested in and performed at particular sites. Auschwitz is an obvious example of this. In spite of the familiar exhortations we hear at the beginning of the film—“never forget“—one has to wonder what the world learned from the crimes of the Nazi regime. Examples abound of vast atrocities since World War Two: there were the Soviet gulags, which imprisoned over 2.5 million by the early 1950s; Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958-61), estimated to have caused tens of millions of deaths; the displacement of Palestinians in 1948; the genocides in Indonesia (1965-66), Cambodia (1975-79), Rwanda (1994), Bosnia (1995) and Sudan (2003–present). Consider that most of the world, including much of Europe, was ruled by dictatorial regimes until at least the fall of the USSR, and even to this day. It is plainly obvious that any lessons that Auschwitz had to teach us about moral courage were never learned. Rather, we have compartmentalised the experience, commemorating it at certain times and places.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s brilliant oeuvre surrounding the Indonesian genocide has demonstrated and deepened Nora’s idea, showing that history becomes linked to memory by way of performance. We forget and suppress what we can’t understand easily, but through enacting certain vital rituals, we can bring memory back. The crux, though, is that the performative rituals need to be relevant to the people involved, or else such actions are hollow. For a time, the conventional performances of Holocaust memory may have satisfied their participants—may have worked as ways of extending that historical moment and the lessons learned—but the tourists’ blasé attitude towards Auschwitz in the film suggests that these institutionalised lieus de mémoire have lost their power.

Though the critique is strong, Loznitsa moves beyond theorizing to something more profound.

Much Holocaust cinema is interested in the idea of memory—how to overcome the temporal distance between then and now to represent crimes of such magnitude. Films like Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful and last year’s Son of Saul, among (too) many others have tried to overcome the distance by adopting variants on the strategies of sympathy and experiential immersion. Others, among them Night and Fog and Shoah, have grappled more directly with the fundamental metaphysical issue of how to represent loss and absence. All of these films have, to one extent or another, positioned themselves as humanist totems—affective gateways into the experience of the Holocaust.

Austerlitz turns this idea on its head. It neither transcends the temporal distance between now and then, nor dwells on how it might be done. Instead, like Sebald’s book, it lingers on absence. Its sublimation of observation and critique into a hollow, meaningless immersion turns it, finally, into a sort of anti-totem: a reminder that we have learned nothing.

Please visit tiff.net for more information on this year’s festival.

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