On Watching Sergei Loznitsa’s “Austerlitz”

By Lauren Coviello

As someone who has always been fascinated by WWII and the Holocaust, I was very curious about the 2016 film “Austerlitz” by Sergei Loznitsa. I knew it was a documentary but I was surprised when there was barely any dialogue. When there was, it consisted of snippets from random conversations, usually in another language that was translated. The way it was filmed was a new experience for me. Loznitsa sets up his camera in random sections of the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps and films how all the tourists interact with each other as well as their behavior inside. The camera only ever moves when the location of the scene is switched. It was not a typical documentary with a narrator explaining what you are watching. Instead, it was filmed to make the audience feel as if they are there.

It didn’t take me long to understand his intention for making this film. Within the first few minutes, I saw a teenager wearing a shirt saying “Cool Story Bro”. I was appalled at the fact that someone who knew they were going to tour a concentration camp would wear something like that. But it didn’t get better. I saw other shirts throughout the film emblazoned with “99 F-ing problems”, “Dope” and “Just Don’t Care”. How could people think those shirts were appropriate to wear at a historical site where so much trauma and pain was caused? I was genuinely shocked at how insensitive so many of the tourists were. People were taking pictures with signs, posing and smiling. Why would someone want to pose with the front entrance gate of a concentration camp? One person even took a photo posing behind the front gate to make it seem like he was in jail.

One situation that the film highlighted was the dynamic between two different tour groups that were outside the cremation building. One group was full of Spanish speakers, and the tour guide was explaining the history of the building as well as facts about Hitler’s rise to power. This tour group was standing toward the middle ground of the shot, while there was another group, this one English speaking, in the foreground. This group had a woman balancing a water bottle on her head. She was laughing and smiling and continued to try balancing the bottle on her head. All of this while the Spanish tour guide was talking. I would love to give this woman the benefit of the doubt considering there was a clear language barrier, but I can’t. Even with the language barrier she is old enough to know what she was doing. No one with any historical understanding would stand outside of a cremation building trying to balance a water bottle on their head and laughing. It’s extremely insensitive and disrespectful.

A second situation that left me heartbroken came when a guide toured by three poles on which prisoners in the camp were killed. Once the tour guide was done explaining this history, the group started moving to another part of the camp. A man proceeds to have someone take a picture of him with the pole. But to make it worse, he posed with his hands above his head as if he was tied to the pole himself. It was absolutely horrific and shocking. I truly had no words when I watched it unfold.

Many people were just very unaware of their surroundings, stepping and sitting where they shouldn’t have. One man was taking photos past a clearly-drawn line on the ground and had to be told to step back. People were also smoking and eating throughout the film. I understand these tours were probably really long, but how do you have such an appetite after touring such an eerie and frightening place? One other issue I had was the fact that so many people brought their kids along. Many kids who are too young to understand the history of a place like Dachau. There was one part where there were two kids playing and messing around outside. Their mother did yell at them to stop, but I don’t understand why people brought their children in the first place. It’s just not the type of place to bring your kids for a weekend getaway.

There were also lots of teenagers there for school trips. At the end of the film you can see many groups leaving the camp. I was again shocked at how they acted as they walked out of a concentration camp. Talking, laughing, smiling, jumping around. If you told me where they were coming from I wouldn’t believe you. The fact that these people couldn’t take this place seriously disturbed me. Everyone who toured was able to go there freely as well as leave to return to their own lives. However, the dark and terrifying history of the camps remains there forever. “Austerlitz” reveals the need to understand it better.

Lauren Coviello is a junior majoring in Forensic Science and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

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