Welcome to the Holocaust Center? Documentary Turns Lens on Concentration Camp Tourism

Sergei Loznitsa's 'Austerlitz' reminds us of the distinction between 'tourism' and 'pilgrimage.' Noa Aharoni’s film about survivors shows how the damage ripples through generations

A scene from Sergei Loznitsa's documentary film "Austerlitz," about tourism at Holocaust sites, which premiered in America on February 19, 2017.
A scene from Sergei Loznitsa's documentary, "Austerlitz." It's not clear whether the director hid his cameras but the tourists seem oblivious. "Austerlitz" / Segei Loznitsa

In the opening moments of the film “Austerlitz” (Germany, 2016), the camera, static behind a row of trees, shows people milling about at a certain site, some of them pushing baby carriages, there is the seemingly cheerful sound of wind in the trees and birds chirping. Nothing in these moments hints that the place is a concentration camp and that the camera is following people who are visiting the site, documenting their reactions without their knowledge and without words. As the day at Sachsenhausen progresses, and the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa maintains the same method of documentation, we gradually learn that there is nothing in the faces or expressions of the mass of people to reflect that this is a horrific site or what they are thinking about it.

In his book “Selling the Holocaust,” about the dangers of mythologization of Auschwitz, historian Tim Cole posits a distinction between “tourism” and “pilgrimage.” “Austerlitz” shows us that this is not pilgrimage, and there is no awe here. Most of the visitors are young people deeply engaged in the act of tourism: They listen to the explanations on an audio guide, look at a map, converse, take pictures and have their pictures taken. Loznitsa, who is also the cinematographer (together with Jesse Mazuch), succeeds in filming them at eye level without their noticing. His choice to show a day of visits without any commentary or narration affords unique power to this observational cinema.

In the absence of the usual mediation, the viewer asks himself such questions as: Is there something odd about the appearance of a visitor leaning on the entry gate marked with the slogan “Arbeit macht frei,” as he poses for a friend’s camera? How does the click of the camera sound to us when, after the guide’s explanations about the gallows, a tourist pretends to be hooked up to one of the gallows, and has his picture taken? The camera maintains distance from what is happening. It does not show us what visitors to the site are seeing, and thus its view does not become a touristic one – that is to say, fleeting, moving on, based on “death attractions.” The decision to film in black and white sharpens the question of whether Holocaust tourism is a worthy vehicle for memory. Is a gap created between the memory of the self photographed at the site of the camp and the memory of the site itself, or the memory of the history presented there?

From Loznitsa’s perspective, there is hardly a moment of quiet, silence or communion. The guides at the site, in various languages, sound mainly like they are recounting anecdotes, for example about one of the failed attempts to assassinate Hitler. In between, the current era’s obsession with photography dominates – sometimes in a bored, herd-like way. At the end of the film, the camera lingers at the gate to Sachsenshausen. The crying of a child in a carriage shatters the habitual quality of the touristic sounds, bringing to mind forgotten things. A concentration camp and a death camp, as everyone knows, are not a place, a topography, a site, a town. They are embodiments of the encounter with death. To come there, to see, to tour and to leave means, from the perspective of Loznitsa’s hypnotic film, to transform it into a place in which which the option of exiting exists. Those who survived Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz or any other camp, never returned from there, after all.

Victim becomes victimizer

Is Israeli society ready to watch Noa Aharoni’s disturbing film “Shadows” (Israel, 2017), which documents the stories of members of the second generation (and the third) who lived in families in which violence prevailed? “Shadows” unflinchingly shows the horrific situation of the victim who in his own home becomes the victimizer. The film follows its protagonists in a reflective journey to their childhood, their parents and themselves. In the film, the faces of the second generation on their memory trip appear as dominated by terrible fear, deadly blows, near-murder, hatred, anger and also pity and projection – a tragic inter-generational journey.

Aharoni shows us that the first generation of Holocaust survivors, who lost their parents, their childhood and their youth, raised a generation that also, in many senses, lacked a childhood and lacked parents. With no prettification, the speakers reveal stories of their parents’ anxieties and hurts, which are connected not only to their parents’ memories but also to their parents’ personalities as they were shaped during the years of horror, and their own hurts as parents who sometimes became violent unwittingly or uncontrollably. All that remains for us is to watch – stricken – this excellent film, and read the dedication “to their memory” at its end, in the understanding that together with the search for a new language of memory to which the cinema is committed, in a generation in which the last of the survivors are vanishing, the language of awareness presented in this film will be essential to its audience, unto the 10th generation.