To observe something is to notice or perceive something and register it as being significant. In an observational documentary, therefore, the camera looks and the viewer observes. The director of such films must therefore not interfere with the images. In the case of Austerlitz, the latest documentary by Sergei Loznitsa, through carefully set-up monochromatic shots, he and cinematographer Jesse Mazich film the behaviors of modern-day visitors at a Nazi concentration camp, Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg in Germany. The camera, in these shots does not move. The sound too does not focus on particular sounds or conversations. Nonetheless, this is a specific approach and a directorial choice that shapes the viewing experience and the reception of the viewer.
The irony that permeates throughout the film is unstaged, but in many ways expected. People wearing T-shirts with viral catchphrases on it; others munching on gigantic sandwiches; lovers in sandals and shorts holding hands; people taking selfies and grotesque pictures of each other (as the Kinks suggested in one of their songs, perhaps, to prove that they really existed, and just in case that they thought you had missed it).
All this constructs a pathetic, but also familiar, sight. Rather than resembling the actualities of the Lumieres, or other films of the observational kind, the film’s purposeful distance initially appears to place the viewers above the subjects that the camera films. To the average viewer, these people will appear to be anything from fickle to downright disrespectful. Furthermore, Loznitsa accentuates the distance between the subject (and film) and the viewer through the use of black and white photography, a persistently muffled soundscape, and even the length of the overall film as well as its lengthy individual shots. The latter element takes the viewer out of the film and forces their minds to wonder. Is this an extension of the irony of Austerlitz?
Let’s consider the average cinema-going experience. How many times have we seen people fiddling with their phones during a screening? And, let’s be honest: is it possible to enjoy a film like Austerlitz without consciously or subconsciously wishing for it to end. This way, we don’t have to sit there, watching, and we can move on to to the next stage: start talking in a condescending way about how terrible it is to live in a world where we are unable to respect history or understand the significance of living in the moment (and if we can’t understand the importance of living in the moment, how can we understand the importance of living in the past?).
Loznitsa claims to have been inspired to make Austerlitz by the 2001 novel of the same name by WG Sebald. Here, a character called Austerlitz, after an upbringing in Britain as a Kindertransport refugee, sees a Nazi propaganda film about the Theresienstadt camp and thinks he recognizes his mother in it. Without looking too hard at the particulars of what aspect of said novel inspired the director in making this documentary, we can understand that the ability to project our own thoughts and experiences on every image we watch is a powerful possibility. Is it, therefore, fair for the average viewer to frown upon the behaviours of the modern-day visitors at a concentration camp?
Appreciating Austerlitz, as a film, entails an appreciation for its ability to allow one to observe the images on the screen, to be critical of them, and then to be critical of ourselves. To understand Austerlitz as a criticism of contemporary times is rather superficial. To see it as a document on the marginal but essential role that history plays in our lives – our real lives as individuals and as part of a contemporary society – is to also understand a much greater irony: Loznitsa’s film, like all films, will too become a thing of the past and a historical document. And what then? – ★★★★
AUSTERLITZ | Germany, 2016 | Documentary | Directed by – Sergei Loznitza / Produced by – Kirill Krasovski / Cinematography – Sergei Losnitza, Jesse Mazuch / Edited by – Shaun de Ponte / Running time: 94 mins.