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In Search of Lost Myths – On Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz

Austerlitz (Sergei Loznitsa, 2016)


I. L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat

Without trains the Shoah would practically have been impossible. The scale of this massacre could only be achieved by turning this symbol of modernism into a symbol of death. This point is made abundantly clear in the first part of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) which has an enormous amount of footage of and related to trains. In a mirror-image of Hannah Arendts theory on The Banality of Evil, this seemingly banal mode of transport has been rendered into something that still has the odor of gas hanging around it. (The same thing has happened with planes after 9/11, in itself a sublime mélange of Icarian and capitalistic iconography.)

Because of this knowledge the last shot in Scarred Hearts – the new film by Radu Jude -, of a young disease-stricken Jew on a train gets an ominous undercurrent that is hard to shake off. The movie as a whole reads as a Thomas Mann/Stefan Zweig-like adieu to ‘the future of yesterday’ in a Magic Mountain-esque setting. Based on a novel by Max Blecher the images’ postcard format with rounded corners complies with a requiem for a culture, the culture of enlightenment, which will find it’s ending in the gas chambers at the end of the railroad. Because Auschwitz as a symbol marks the ending of a certain philosophical undercurrent in human history – much in the same way Hiroshima and Nagasaki did for the scientific undercurrent in that same history – we now live in a time that can only be described as post-Auschwitz. But what does this mean and more importantly for this essay; what does this mean in terms of cinema?

II. Eine Symphonie des Grauens

When talking about documentaries in general and certainly those concerning the Holocaust it is impossible to not talk about Shoah. As I noted in an earlier article, part of the greatness of this documentary is the way it reaches to the core of its specific art form and finds the problem rooted there. Shoah is as much an elegy for the victims of the titular massacre as it is an inquiry into the nature of cinema and how it failed to bear witness to the most important historical event that happened during the historic period in which it was the most important artistic practice. (Maybe every real artwork deals with its own failing.)

Where Shoah shows us all the things it wants to show but can’t while people talk about the things that can’t be shown, Austerlitz (Sergei Loznitsa, 2016) shows us exactly what it wants to show: us. Consisting of ninety minutes of footage filmed on the hottest day of the summer of 2016, we see the tourists that on any given day can be found at a concentration camp memorial and museum. In shots that look exactly the same as the early Lumière pictures (especially La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon, 1895), Austerlitz takes us back to the beginning of cinema to ask the same questions as Shoah. However instead of contemplating the death of cinema, Austerlitz asks the question why it is impossible to look at these seemingly similar images in the same way we did a little more than a hundred years ago.

Bringing us back to cinema in its most embryonic form, i.e. capturing human experience, Austerlitz shows us nothing more, and most certainly nothing less, than long shots of tourist who flock through different parts of a concentration camp and approach their surroundings as they would do in the garden of Versailles or near the pyramids of Cairo. Where cinema used to reinstate basic human experience with a sense of wonder by projecting it onto a bigger-than-life screen, the prevalence of images in the last century has had a completely different result. It has diminished our authentic experience and replaced it with spectacle as Guy Debord showed us in his The Society of the Spectacle (1967). In this book ‘spectacle’ is the word used for what has become a mere representation of experience that is no longer being experienced in itself. A contemporary update of this theory should add that this is especially true when the prevailing ‘spectacular’ aesthetics are that of television, which are those of the commercial break.

The tour guides of the camps that provide the only audible narration in this documentary, have to sell the ‘Auschwitz’-experience in terms that are directly taken from commercial television. In what other way can we interpret a guide having to end her tour with a ‘tale of hope’ wherein the famous uprising by the Sonderkommandos is told as an example of human perseverance although the facts teach us that all of the prisoners involved, and many who weren’t, got killed as a retribution for the destroyed crematorium. Similarly, another guide assures her audience that in five minutes they’ll have another opportunity to eat or go to the bathroom.

And yet, it is all too easy to morally judge these people at display because of their disinterest in the scars of their past or because their preoccupation with the next chance to eat is slightly baffling at the anus mundi called Auschwitz. You probably will judge some of them at one point but we must not forget that only he who is without sin should cast the first stone. Austerlitz gives us enough time, and what a luxury time has become, to sidestep the easy moral superiority that we could claim in our comfortable position as viewers and to delve deeper into our own experience. It turns watching – and with watching we mean observing, looking, gazing in an attempt at understanding – back into an experience. When we watch Austerlitz, we watch ourselves watching ourselves and this has been the purpose of art for as long as it exists. When we stare into Austerlitz, we stare into the Nietzschean abyss that lies at the core of mankind.

III. Man with A Movie Camera

One of the biggest accomplishments of Austerlitz is the fact it turns ‘watching’ into something problematic. The shots of the tourists strolling through an unidentified concentration camp on a hot summer day, makes us feel uneasy because we, as an audience, judge these people for not being more interested or respectful towards the remnants of one of the greatest manmade disasters in our history. And yet, as an audience, we too do nothing more than watching, albeit presumably more attentive, which is hardly something that has a direct impact on the world around us that is burning in much the same way as it did merely 70 years ago.

Another aspect that makes the watching of this documentary problematic lies in the fact that it tries really hard to convince us it serves us nothing more than unadulterated images shot on a hot summer day. But of course this is far from the truth. The camera is positioned in meticulously sought-out positions that not only result in frames that are (for lack of a better word) beautiful or at least appealing in their static compositions, but also make it impossible for the sound to have been recorded on the spot. This means that the sound was added in post-production, which of course raises the question of the authenticity of what we hear.

All this isn’t really different from most other documentaries but because this particular one raises so many questions on the problematical aspects of watching, the authenticity of history and how we experience it and moreover because its subject matter is so sensitive, to say the least, these artifices are all the more unsettling. We cannot look at these images with the same innocence we had when watching the early Lumière documentaries because somewhere in the hundred odd years that separate these films, we have lost this innocence; our own innocence and the innocence of the image in itself. There’s a reason cinema needed a neo-realism after the Holocaust and this reason is a reaction to the films that took great part in the propaganda that was made on both sides of the war.

Der ewige Jude (1940), being the most vile and famous example of Nazi-propaganda, is far less interesting for contemporary audiences because, luckily, it is easily dismissed on every level as a (only for historical reasons still interesting) piece of trash that served no other purposes than to confirm the sentiments that had been put into place long before its arrival. More ambiguous and thus interesting today are the documentaries of Leni Riefenstahl, a real artist compared to the puppets that were involved in, what I scruple to call, the creation process of Der ewige Jude. The ambiguity of Triumph des Willens (1935) lies mostly in its overtly beautiful documentation of what was at that point still just an ‘ordinary’ political party. It’s ambiguity and danger lies in its beauty. Although the military porn scenes tend to get tiresome, it has a seducing effect on the viewer. Through her undeniable artistic craftsmanship and her innovative mastery of the technical aspects of film, Leni Riefenstahl serves today as one of the prime examples of the moral issues concerning beauty and the suspicion towards realism (as something that is ideologically constructed), we face today. Both of these problems were very important (and further developed) in the philosophical discourse that dominated the second half of the twentieth century and is generally known as post-modernism.

IV. The Kid

The problem of realism brings us to the core of the artistic representation of the Holocaust. Time and again survivors of the concentration camps have pointed out that although they have tried to testify of their experiences in those camps, the only real witnesses of the Holocaust are the dead that can no longer testify. Every testimony of the Holocaust is a failure, certainly when it believes it can deliver us a, or the, truth about the Holocaust because this truth transcends the limits of human comprehension let alone artistic abilities. But of course not every failure is the same.

The reason Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) deserves our abjection, much in the same way Jacques Rivette could only respond with abjection to the infamous tracking shot in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo (1960), is the realistic approach with which it tries to tell its story. Apart from Spielberg being born on another continent the year after the historical ending of the atrocities, it is a movie about, in the famous words of Stanley Kubrick: “success. […] The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.”

The realistic approach in combination with the heroism at the center of its narrative, disqualify Schindler’s List as an artistic representation of the Holocaust. It’s an all-American story about a hero who makes it against all odds, situated in the margins of a greater historic event. (Spielberg was much clearer in his intentions when the first shot of his propaganda film Saving Private Ryan (1998) consisted of nothing more than the Star Spangled Banner of the nation that was only involved in the Second World War when it could revitalize their economy.) The greatest critique of Schindler’s List can be found in Austerlitz when at one point a Holocaust-tourist takes center stage while wearing a Jurassic Park-T-shirt.

When dealing with the Holocaust we should shy away from trying to deliver ‘mere facts’ not because they don’t exist but because the facts are at the same time too big to comprehend and too small to represent. In dealing with the artistic representation we have to enter ‘the white room of imagination’ David Grossman writes about in his novel See Under Love. As I wrote earlier, the truth of the Holocaust is reserved for the millions of people that died and because of that we, the living, can(‘t) only imagine what this truth is. In imagining the Holocaust we try to confront it in ways that are more essential than the historical facts. And although every imagining will lead to failure, it is our artistic duty to fail as best as possible because it is the only way we can engage with the Holocaust on any artistic level.

Because of all this La vita è bella (1997) by Italian filmmaker Roberto Begnini is a much more honest and interesting failure than Schindler’s List. Its approach is in no way realistic and therefore the movie never pretends having any truth to tell about the Holocaust. If Adorno famously theorized that after Auschwitz there can be no more poetry and Imre Kertész updated this axiom into: “after Auschwitz there can be no more poetry that isn’t about Auschwitz”, then Begnini asks himself the question if and how there can be comedy after and about Auschwitz. This being a question of an enormous scale, he doesn’t succeed in answering it satisfyingly (and who could) but the fact that he tries is something that deserves if not our admiration then at least our consideration.

The first half of the film is a throwback to the innocence we already discussed in this article. By using the conventions of the commedia dell’arte (a folk theatre practice that was widely popular in Italy during the 16th and 17th century and renowned for its mixture of serious and comical elements) and referring to Charlie Chaplin, who had a great influence on Begnini and whose The Great Dictator (1940) is a direct forefather of La vita è bella, Begnini looks at his comical heritage in a nostalgic way because the circumstances for this comic innocence will soon be destroyed.

When the protagonist and his son are imprisoned in a concentration camp during the second half of the movie and he tries to mask the atrocities for his son by turning the rules that are at work there in those of a game, Begnini gives his film the aura of a fairy tale in the tradition of those by Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Grimm that are big part of the European artistic folk heritage. In contrast with their watered down Disney versions, these fairy tales have always been full of horror and were used by the communities wherein they originated as a way of understanding their own history much in the same way the Greek mythology was reworked for societal purposes into the art form we now call Classic Greek Tragedy.

In this context the bittersweet happy ending of the film is justified. The kid, who becomes a symbol of our lost innocence, actually believes he has won the game as the allied forces thought they had won the war, but of course history would only grant us this feeling of victory for a very short time.

By attempting to turn the Holocaust into a comic fairy tale, Begnini does not diminish the suffering of its victims and survivors but instead tries to look at it in the only way he knows: that of the European tradition that has always used artistic forms in dealing with the horrors of life. Of course he fails because how could he not fail, but at least he tried to tackle the Holocaust in his personal, authentic way; that of a comedian. And in the words of Samuel Beckett, himself playing a major part in post-Auschwitz theatre and literature: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

V. Olympia

As I wrote earlier, watching Austerlitz is staring into the Nietzschean abyss of human existence. Even though Nietzsche called himself a psychologist, his theories have nothing to do with the so-called scientific psychological theories as we know them today. Most of his theories are already present in his first mature work The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872) and with this book as a basis I would like to call Nietzsche the most problematic of all theologians.

Even though the misuse of his writings by the Nazi-party does no justice to their complexity and ambivalence, it does nonetheless make Nietzsche an important figure in understanding what went down in the century whose birth he marked with the deaths of both God and himself. Before the rise of psychology through the works of both Freud and Balzac, mythology, with in its trail philosophy, was the prevalent way of understanding the human condition. After the death of God, proclaimed by Nietzsche and executed in the gas chambers by a party that used different kinds of mythology as a justification of its existence and deeds, we bade farewell to mythology as a way of understanding our world. This left us in a disenchanted world wherein up until now every purely psychological explanation for the Holocaust has failed miserably. As a result some artists have revisited the myths we discarded as useless in an attempt at imagining and thus engaging with the Holocaust.

One of the finest examples of the Nazis’ own use of mythology can be seen in that other great Riefenstahl documentary Olympia where she uses her coverage of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games for another propaganda documentary, but instead of the Wagnerian reworking of the Nordic mythology she used as a template for Triumph des Willens (interestingly choosing Wagners Götterdämmerung (1876) where one would expect Parfisal (1882)), she now refers to Ancient Greek iconography which places the Nazi culture with its emphasis on the body in the tradition of Hellenic corporal beauty that found its culmination in the original Olympic Games. This same mythological sensitivity would lead Luchino Visconti to present the Night of the Long Knives as a bacchantic ritual that includes homosexuality and cross dressing, when he tackled Nazi decadence in his masterpiece La Caduta degli dei (1969) which tellingly borrowed its title and themes from Wagners Götterdämmerung, the same opera that was referenced in Triumph des Willens.

Five years later Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling, two of the main actors in La Caduta degli Dei, reunited for another mythical treatment of the Holocaust-theme in what might be the most interesting film on the subject up until now. Liliana Cavani’s Il portiere di notte (1974) generated a lot of controversy on its initial release because of the sadomasochistic relationship that was based at the center of its narrative and involved a former-Nazi and his victim rekindling their relationship many years after it was started in a concentration camp. And yet what’s really at the basis of this movie is the reworking of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Instead of losing his lover to the depths of hell, Bogarde, our Orpheus, meets her there for the first time. When he loses her because of the end of the war, he later meets her again in the hotel where he functions as the titular night porter. In a continent that does it utmost best to forget the horrors that tore it apart, these two lovers hold onto each other because it is the only way they can remember who they were and thus are now.

The at first glance out of place flashback scene of a scantily-clad Nazi giving a ballet performance in what appears to be one of the camp buildings, is the most explicit reference towards the Orphic theme because the music he dances to is the ballet composition that opens the second act of the Christophe Willibald Gluck opera Orfeo ed Eurydice, the title of this composition being ‘The Dance of the Furies’. The Furies play an important part in Greek Mythology and are used in another mythic cycle, the Oresteia (presumably 458 BC), as a symbol for the rise of democracy when Athena the goddess of reason decides to put an end to the blood revenge that constituted a lot of tragedies by installing the prototype of what was to become known as democracy and renaming the Furies as the Kindly Ones.

The importance of this reference is not to be underestimated because the notion of justice as symbolized here by the Furies is a major issue in the questions on guilt concerning the Holocaust. The 2006 French novel by Jonathan Little titled The Kindly Ones (Les Bienveillantes) is an epic story based on the principles of mythical Greek justice when asking the question who is guilty and who has the right to claim themselves innocent. In Judeo-Christian beliefs on sin, a sin only has to be accounted for when it was committed consciously; when a sin was not committed intentionally it was not a sin. In the classical Greek notion of sin, however, the act is deemed most important and not the intention. Oedipus will be punished for his patricide and incest even though he was not fully aware of them.

When Maximilian Aue, the Nazi-protagonist of The Kindly Ones, at the end of the novel proclaims that “[t]he Kindly Ones [are] on to [him], he means that he will be tormented by his memories for the rest of his life. At least on a philosophical level accepting and acknowledging his guilt (even though he could claim to be just a Bertoluccian conformist), Aue decides to write down his version of history so that it will be known and will not be forgotten. The Furies are his memories that will never cease to torment him. Even though we have to take in account that we are dealing here with a narrator as manipulative and ambiguous as Humbert Humbert himself.

The dialectic movement between historical memory and amnesia brings us, finally, and in a style not unlike its source novel, back to Austerlitz. In an interview with The New York Times Loznitsa alternates between calling his documentary an adaptation or variation on W.G. Sebald’s eponymous novel. The main question his film asks is that of the possibilities of memory and the culture of remembrance in the context of the Holocaust. Because of this Austerlitz can be seen as a reaction to Night Will Fall (Andre Singer) the documentary that came out two years earlier and chronicles the trials of the crew that just after the victory of the Allies, was assigned with the task to make a film with the footage the soldiers had shot at the liberated concentration camps. The project was abandoned when the officials in power decided that to rebuild Europe economically after the ravaging war, the help of the Germans was needed and thus the footage known under the name Memory of the Camps would not be released as the effect it might have on the European population would not be constructive in the bigger picture of economical resurgence.

The last image of Il portiere di notte already showed us this when our Orpheus and Eurydice are killed in the middle of a bridge they could only now, after having been reunited, try to cross together, when that same bridge had already been crossed and burnt by the world around them. The consequences of this refusal to look back are still palpable today because when we are no longer able to cross the abyss of our past, the only thing we are left to do is stare right into it. Austerlitz is a stark reminder of how our incompetence in dealing with the past obscures our view on the present, let alone the future. We seem to be unable to learn the lessons we should learn because of the distance we created between ourselves and the history that shaped us and because we, in the final words of Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard (1956), “turn a blind eye to what surrounds us and a deaf ear to humanity’s never-ending cry.”