CHECKING INTO DACHAU
Have you ever been to the excursion that is so long and exhausting, that the only thing you wish for is just for it to end, no matter how wonderful or significant a museum or a site is? Have you ever felt like any of the facts a guide has been bombarding you with have nothing to do with you and don’t move you in any way? Have you ever felt indifferent to places that were meant to amaze, fascinate or frighten?
Impressions trading times set people to a “bored” mode. This is what Sergei Loznitsa explores and describes in his new film “Austerlitz”. Just like in his two previous works, “Maidan” and “The Event”, the protagonist of this film is the crowd, particularly a continuous flow of visitors to the memorials of the former concentration camps, Sachsenhausen and Dachau. The film is made up mostly of long static shots, and sometimes it gives you an impression that to shoot his film Loznitsa just joined one of the tourist groups on one of the days. But camera never follows its characters – it only captures their activity, it does not zoom in on the memorial plates or to the dark of the barracks – instead it firmly fixes on their eyes. Through and past black and white geometry of the windows, gates and doors people flow stopping only to take a picture or to let other people pass. A girl quickly and methodically peeks in every single cell’s window. An exhausted group reluctantly drags behind the guide, chewing on their sandwiches. Men and women automatically peer into the dark of crematorium ovens. This is how Loznitsa shows the opposite side of these places: something that anyone can be, but is very unlikely to be looked at.
However, other things can be noticed at the Sachsenhausen camp’s front gate where the ominous sign says “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work sets you free”), things that are far from boring. Like the colourful diversity of phrases, hardly appropriate for the occasion, emblazoned on the visitors’ T-shirts (“Cool story, bro”, “Just don’t care”); or visitors with small children; or “Arbeit Macht Frei” serving as a background for numerous photos. The take lasts long enough to make the visitors’ monotonous moves look eerie – watching them move that way evokes images of people coming to this camp and moving in the same manner 70 years ago. The film’s opening and closing shots depict gates, as if Loznitsa was trying to understand, whether the time spent at a place where mass murdering took place can change anyone. Doesn’t seem like it can, though: as visitors leave, they never miss a chance to take another selfie, and sometimes they look even more cheerful than before they came to the place, points out the director. “Inert masses”, this is how Loznitsa calls them. This time his detachment is deceptive, and behind the fixed eye of a camera hide mild contempt and deep incomprehension.
Loznitsa shows the way these terrible murder sites are turning into a tourist attraction. People in the film smile and eat a lot. And take loads of pictures, like the ones they take near the poles – where random inmates were hanged to frighten the ones who were to be interrogated – with their hands folded in a manner the victims had theirs. The guides try to “entertain” guests with stories of uprisings, vivid descriptions of tortures and lunch promises. From the pieces of their stories, captured by the camera, a sensation emerges that some of the guides are trying to make their stories sound less detached and more empathically engaging. But is it possible to maintain sensitivity by reproducing it every day? “Are there any questions or comments? “Is everything okay?” “Okay” – is not the best word here, cheerfully says one of the guides.
The film’s title refers to the novel by Winfried Georg Sebald “Austerlitz”- a story of exploring the memory of places and other people. The main character struggles to live in the present, everywhere he sees the numerous layers of the past, experiencing history as if all of it is compressed into a single moment of perception: “Indeed, said Austerlitz, I had a feeling that this hall, where I stand right in the middle, as if blinded, had absorbed all the time of my past, all my forever suppressed and substituted fears and desires, as these black and white rhombuses on the stone floor surrounding me only so that I could play the endgame of my life in this field, as though stretched out, covering the whole plane of time”. At the same time, his companion, who provides the narrative focus for the story, after visiting the premises of the former concentration camp, observes that he probably “did not really want to see what could be seen there,” and admits how few stories we, humans, can keep in our memory, and “how the world empties itself because there are numerous stories that will never be heard, recorded or told”.
Sebald describes an extreme sensitivity to the past – a relic feeling. Loznitsa depicts his complete and irreplaceable loss. It seems that the places the director watches are preserved and intended for enlightenment, grief and, probably, repentance, have finally become so crowded that they lost their memory, which is an anxious and oppressive experience: “This happened”, that embarrassed Austerlitz. And if so, then what attracts new and new tourists there? What traces of human cruelty, they hope to see among the bare walls? Or is it just for the fact of visiting, a symbolic check-in in an “outstanding place” – and no matter what’s the story behind it?
Mikhail Yampolsky writes, that the answer to this question lies in the difference between history and heritage. The first is the reconstruction of past events. Latter is the material remain of the past, suitable for symbolic consumption: a person ceases to reproduce memory, but the cultural industry continues to provide it. The “legacy” turns into oblivion. And even visiting places of mass crimes becomes a commodity, claimed primarily because of the promise of a “safe” affect. However, the “inheritance machine” does not allow to experience it – and tourists feel that their consumer rights have been violated.
The reason for this, among other things, is that in the former concentration camps there’s actually nothing to look at. This is the place of memory, there are no artefacts. By the way, Loznitsa speaks of the endless corridors in the barracks the tourists pass as if they were something absolutely unnecessary. Like without them it would be easier for people to reflect upon themselves – instead, they constantly look around, waiting for something shocking to emerge. Modern Western culture is very visual, and the media has accustomed its audiences to shift images in search of more powerful stimulus to capture their attention. It seems that in terms of memory the same principle applies, the one that Susan Sontag formulated for television: “A more thoughtful attitude towards the content would require even more intensive engagement of consciousness.”
However, when you watch “Austerlitz” an inevitable question arises: am I any different from the people on the screen? How would I behave? Would I be the same? What would I dress up like, if the day was as hot? Would I dare going there at all?
The film also makes you think about who sets the rules for visiting such places of mourning, and whom we are responsible to for our experience of being there. Is Loznitsa doing right in diagnosing the Western society so easily? In what way, after all, can indifference be distinguished from the defensive reaction? In one of the interviews, the director notes that the total frivolity he observed in the field shooting is an achievement of our time. Like, visitors used to be much more thoughtful back in the time. However, the sheer history of the concentration camps shows that the ethical dilemma regarding their further use, like turning into a commemoration spot and allowing visitors inside has always existed. Now they have become tourist attractions, and in post-war times the residential complexes were built there. And which one’s the worse?
Günter Grass’s novel “My Century” describes how stubbornly during the 60-s older generation were rejecting any evidence of Nazi crimes. They wanted to know nothing, and what they knew, they would rather forget. The burden of guilt and horror took over their children. Eventually, they completed the work and recognition of responsibility, identifying and honouring the victims. During the second half of the 20th century, Europe lived through injuries of the World War II. Now “Austerlitz” shows us that forgetting is inevitable. And the main question of the film is not why people do selfies against the backdrop of Nazi slogans, but rather why it can serve as a material for a film. Because there are far more grotesque forms of oblivion. As an example, honouring the victims of famine in Ukraine, dripping with victimity and full of fervour no one would want to be associated with. Like the destruction of the memorial centres where the former labour camps in Russia stood and turning them into “Museums of the NKVD.” Like a complete silence on Soviet repressions of 60-70-s, remembered and commemorated only by those who had experienced them personally. Loznitsa would have done a much blatant film on Babi Yar as a place full of monuments, but absolutely spared of memory. So this European oblivion is rather a fad, a symptom, but not the picture of the apocalypse.
And finally, a way to grief and commemoration can be revealed by the question: “What does any of these have to do with us?”. And the answers to that one can never be the same for everyone – if there are any answers at all.