Dir. Sergei Loznitsa, Germany, 2016, 94 minutes
At the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)
You could call Austerlitz ‘Freizeit macht frei’. The documentary is a tour with throngs of visitors to museums at Auschwitz and other Nazi camps. The Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s specialty is crowds, whether protesting in Kiev’s central square (Maidan, 2014) or in the streets of St. Petersburg (Event, 2015). Austerlitz takes its name from the 2001 novel where W. G. Sebald follows a man, reassembling strands of his parents’ fate in the Holocaust, finally arriving at the conclusion that what he found after that journey was still an enigma.
There’s no such purposeful journey here. Loznitsa sets up his camera, and tourists pass through Arbeit Macht Frei portals in shorts, baseball hats and t-shirts, unaware of being observed (as if Loznitsa filmed through a one –way mirror), unconcerned that dark ghosts might haunt the place. Sometimes that place, in the case of the Sachsenhausen camp north of Berlin, is a short subway ride away. The effect, not sinister or ghoulish, is numbing.
The open-air museum experience doesn’t vary much from that of other tourist sites. Visitors grip audio guides or just read cell phones. Occasionally a guide provides details about what happened there. Where the industry of extermination once operated, an industry of tourism reigns.
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