TIFF 2016 Review: Austerlitz
The opening minutes of Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz provide a small jolt that encapsulates why it’s the best film dealing with the Holocaust I’ve seen in the last several years. Shooting in black and white, Loznitsa locks his camera down at the entrance to a concentration camp and observes wave after wave of tourists entering and leaving its gates. People pull out their cell phones, taking pictures of the “Arbeit macht frei” sign, walking around in casual clothing that looks like they’re dressed for the beach rather than one of civilization’s greatest atrocities. In looking at the Holocaust, especially on film, Loznitsa finds a simple and effective way to explore its context in the present day.
What Loznitsa shows is how radically these camps become redefined by whoever inhabits their space. One shot has the camera placed outside in a fenced off area, an empty space save for a teenager texting on a bench. Soon, more people start appearing, and by the end of the shot two groups of tourists dominate the frame, as their respective tour guides (each one speaking a different language) rattle off information. There’s an inherently off-putting quality to these scenes, as the echoes of what these camps were clash against their usage today. The presence of so many visitors shows, at the very least, a demand for learning from the past, but the cavalier nature of the tourists causes concern over whether or not they’re actually learning; it looks less like an opportunity to inform or reflect and more like a chance to gawk at the morbid attractions (Loznitsa gets this message across early on when he focuses on someone wearing a Jurassic Park shirt, a case of a perfect if unfortunate coincidence).
Admittedly, by the film’s final 20 or so minutes it feels like Loznitsa’s ideas have run their course, excluding the excellent closing shot. What’s surprising though is how much his spare approach, relying on fixed shots and mostly ambient sounds, works throughout the majority of the film’s runtime. Loznitsa finds ways to delve into themes of memory, time, history, and society with each frame, whether it’s shooting through windows to highlight our unavoidable detachment from these historical events, or lingering long enough on an area to show how our own memories and interpretations can fill an empty space. By the end, Austerlitz showcases a distressing truth through its glimpse at the merger between the Holocaust and capitalism: even the most sacred of places can’t escape from our consumerist desires.