Austerlitz is an hour and a half of static shots of people walking about a concentration camp. They listen to audio devices or tour guides. They chat with one another. They look at points of interest. They take breaks to drink from their water bottles. They snap pictures of themselves, their friends and family and the camp — so many pictures. They treat this ground as if it is any other tourism site. It puts an entirely new spin on “the banality of evil.”
The contrast is sharp between the carefree, frequently self-focused culture of the contemporary First World and the knowledge of the atrocity committed against this backdrop. Director Sergei Loznitsa does not judge, however. How could he, when this documentary is, after all, itself just another camera pointed at what most would call hallowed ground? Though a viewer may shake their head at people taking selfies in front of the Abreit Macht Frei sign on the front gate or wearing “Cool Story, Bro” T-shirts (or something even more cringeworthy), the film simply invites us to watch and learn alongside them.
It would be interesting to know how someone unaware of the premise would process Austerlitz, how long it would take them to realize that the shots of what look like people at any plain old museum are in fact at Sachsenhausen, which was initially set up for political prisoners in 1936 and became an extermination camp later during World War II. The visitors (referring to them as “tourists” seems perverse, no matter how appropriate it may be) do not act with any particular reverence. But then again, are they obligated to? The Holocaust is nearly out of living memory entirely. Preserved though it may be by myriad filmed testimony and far too many Oscar-baiting movies, historical events lose their emotional power as time marches on. This is how it is. Whether it is good or bad is beside the point.
With Austerlitz, the audience both watches another audience and is, in a way, part of that audience. The viewer simultaneously watches how the visitors interact with the site and interacts with the site on their own, though removed physically from the location and constrained by what the doc deigns to show them. You will take what you will both from the camp itself and what you observe of its current inhabitants. At times, one can imagine the horrors of the past in the same frame as people listening to a guide explain said past, prisoners gassed as Americans in polo shirts and khaki shorts watch on impassively. The Holocaust is the 20th century’s perfect atrocity thanks to cinema. This film replaces the act of constructed witness with direct witness to the place where some of the events took place. It forces us to reconsider what it really means to remember.