Austerlitz: A sightseeing tour where you don't see the past
by Silvia Ricciardi
- VENICE 2016: The unusual, German-produced documentary by Sergei Loznitsa has been presented out of competition, proving that history doesn't necessarily need to be shown
What if someone decided to place a movie camera in certain pre-determined spots and capture common people – in this case tourists – as they wander around a place steeped in history, like Sachsenhausen, a Nazi concentration camp located in the small town of Oranienburg, Germany? This is exactly what Sergei Loznitsa decided to do for his German-produced documentary Austerlitz [+see also:
film profile], presented out of competition at the 73rd Venice Film Festival.
Positioning his camera literally in the middle of groups of people, the director decides to film and immortalise on the big screen not the insides of the rooms in which all that dramatic history unfolded, but rather the outside; in this way, it is the walls establishing the confines within which the past ran its course that convey the messages. Changing the camera's point of view, never opting for moving shots or changes of focus, but rather letting the outside flow towards the “walls” of the frame, Loznitsa forces the viewer to watch what seems to be a trip down memory lane (albeit with awful memories), an immersion in the past without ever actually showing the past itself, but rather letting the present, with all its witnesses, speak on its behalf.
The camera, which constantly remains deathly still, frames the Sachsenhausen visitors in black and white, initially as they enter the gate marking the entrance, then during their visit to the various stations that the complex is divided into, finally accompanying them as they leave, following them, spying on them and observing them right from the start of their trip. One particular characteristic pervading the work is the lack of awareness of the people who appear in front of the camera: they often find themselves staring straight down the lens, stunned at having made contact with the inquiring eye of the camera. This perspective, together with the director's preference to keep the camera fixed in one spot, makes the unusual documentary Austerlitz similar to the very first films by the Lumiere brothers.
And so Loznitsa directs the non-narration of his project in a rather daring way, deciding to look to the present and, solely through this, reinterpret the past, which also sometimes makes an appearance in the guise of brief anecdotes narrated by the tourist guides, who occasionally also fall victim to the invasive glare of the camera lens. Resolving to not show certain things, rather than putting things freely on display, the auteur places the most emphasis on what is out of shot – on the things that the people in the frame can see beyond the walls and partitions, which are inaccessible to the viewer. Eventually, the words come from outside the field of action, drawing one's attention to the idea of death that plagues Sachsenhausen. Loznitsa seems to have only one objective: it's not so important to show archive photos or reproductions of Nazi prisons; we need to draw attention to the hand of death that took so many people away, many of whom were victims of the holocaust. It is only this that we need bear in mind, and nothing more.
The film was produced and is being sold abroad by German sales agent Imperativ Film.
(Translated from Italian)