Peter Bradshaw,, 21.11.2016

Sergei Loznitsa sets up his cameras at the sites of the Nazi death camps, to watch the behaviour of the visitors and ask how best to remember history

The title of Sergei Loznitsa’s mysterious, challenging, disturbing film is said by the director to be inspired by the 2001 novel by WG Sebald, in which a character called Austerlitz, after an upbringing in Britain as a Kindertransport refugee, sees a Nazi propaganda film about the Theresienstadt camp and thinks that he recognises his mother. It is a book partly about the petrification and nullification of history created by official memorials. Of course, it has another meaning: the title looks in the first fraction of a second like “Auschwitz”. It is a linguistic trompe l’oeil. The horrors of the 20th century are receding into the dusty tomb of history, joining the battles of the 19th century: Auschwitz is a word that may one day have as little electrical charge as Austerlitz.

Loznitsa’s Austerlitz is a documentary study, with almost no audible dialogue of any kind, of the increasingly established tourist phenomenon at the Nazi death camps in Germany. He sets up fixed camera positions at the Dachau and Sachsenhausen camps, which have huge visitor numbers due to being close to big cities (Munich and Berlin respectively) and simply records the ebb and flow of thousands of tourists as they look around, chat, yawn, listen to the audio guides and take selfies. One group actually does this next to the sign saying “Arbeit Macht Frei”. Of course they are dressed casually, and evidently no restrictions are put on their clothing as might be the case in a church or mosque, and yet their behaviour is not overtly disrespectful or disorderly. It is just normal. It is as if they are seeing the Eiffel Tower or Anne Hathaway’s cottage.

The most extraordinary, jarring thing is the T-shirts. The slogans shout at you from the screen: “Cool Story Bro”, “Fucking Fuck Happens”, “Life Was More Relaxed When Apples And Blackberries Were Just Fruit”, “No Hustle No Progress”. And yet the film is far from a simple complaint that these uniquely important historical sites are being degraded by the tourist industry. Loznitsa appears to be asking us: so how should they be dressed? How should they behave? If we start to police people’s actions, is this not a kind of restriction or censorship? Openness to the public means tolerating a level of what might be conceived as vulgarity and disrespect – but might not be. After all, each individual on screen is probably having precisely the same thoughts as we, the audience, are having about the often bizarre spectacles created at these sites.

The film ask us how we formulate universally agreed ideas about sacrilege in places where religion does not officially apply. If we think that the Arbeit Macht Frei sign is being desecrated, then what does that mean: are we in danger of creating and preserving a wrong-headed historical mystique around it; a fallacious specificity, which might imply that fascism is evil but over, and the danger is past? It is difficult to decide. (For what it’s worth, I personally would introduce a rule forbidding selfie sticks but not photography itself.)

Above all, Loznitsa shows you the central activity: looking. Everyone is looking, looking, looking. Looking at what? Buildings, walls, yards, enclosures. The victims are not there. The war criminals are not there. The past is not there. Perhaps each new tourist erodes the site further until all that is left is dust. But visiting these sites is not meaningless and not wrong. It is part of human curiosity, which is better than indifference or forgetting.

Austerlitz is flawed in the way that films about the Holocaust will tend to be flawed – they can’t encompass the truth – and there is perhaps something obtuse or frustrating in the film’s silence. No one is asked what they think. (It is the opposite of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, which was about verbal testimony.)

The film is about memory and truth, and that perhaps these things cannot exactly be preserved like wine or books, but rather have to be kept alive as habits of thought – especially in the age of the facetious and insidious “post-truth” fad – and that commercial memorials such as those at the Nazi camps, however crass, can create the circumstances in which thinking about the past is possible and encouraged. But this means a debate about what form the memorialising should take.