I’ve written about ethical witnessing before — both in the eco-trauma chapter of Ecologies of the Moving Image and in my reflections on Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Seeing Serhii Loznitsa‘s latest film, Austerlitz, at Kyiv’s Molodist Film Festival a few days ago, prompted me to think some more about how a seemingly neutral camera, viewing the world but not commenting on it, can enable such a witnessing. (The film’s title is an oblique reference to the W. G. Sebald novel of the same name; there is no mention of the book in the film.)
As in his previous film Maidan, but perhaps more so because of its subject matter, Loznitsa’s camera challenges us with its coldly observational approach to what it films. Here it is visitors to the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps or, as the less flattering term has is, “Holocaust tourists.” He simply sets up his camera in front of the crowds, apparently invisible, and in structural film fashion, gives us several-minute blocks of time watching them arrive and move through the camps, with tour guides, listening devices, or without.
But this ostensible “neutrality” is a considered response to Loznitsa’s ethical challenge, which is: how to show us the death camps today, three-quarters of a century after they were used for the machinery of mass slaughter? How to lead us into it, without providing the decades of narrative that have become customary to it, but have somehow lost their potency?
His answer is: by not showing us that machinery at all. But instead, by showing us — today’s viewers and visitors — and letting us be led into it without seeing what it is that “we” see.
“We” are, of course, not we, for as long as we maintain the distance of the viewer’s irony — we, viewers, on this side of the screen; they, tourists, on the other. But that distance, which is what gives us the sense that we are superior to them, cannot be maintained indefinitely, and this is our viewerly challenge.
If it — the world, the dead, the death camp victims, time itself — could look back at us, this is what it would see today: these faces of curious, T-shirted, camera-toting onlookers and selfie-takers. The materiality of a tourist mass making its way across the viewscape of death. Looking, snapping photos, eating, looking, moving, chatting, listening (to a text over a hand-held guided-tour device), looking some more. And always advertising a bodyscape of T-shirt logos, brands, and meaningless (or worse) slogans. The empty freedom of those who are free to look, to gawk, to gaze, and to move on.
A scene towards the film’s end shows a memorial statue of three bodies in intense, angular motion, with a woman looking pensively down in front it, her hair blowing in the wind like the fields of wheat or grass in a Dovzhenko or Tarkovsky film (references that make sense in the context of Ukrainian cinema), an Asian man eagerly snapping pictures at odd angles behind her. The image captures the kind of iconicism that is the prize in this style of thoughtful cinema with its structural, observational aesthetic, but with an understanding of cinema’s epic yet abstract power. We begin to hear bells ringing, somewhere in the distance, and then realize they have bled through from the next scene (a church being looked into by tourists; again, we never see what they are seeing — we are in the position of the seen).
The film ends with the same visitors coming out of the camp, having gone through the experience and now exiting, like the workers leaving the factory in the Lumiere brothers’ classic 1895 film, one of the films that today signifies the origins of cinema.
The tourists have left the death factory. They are us.
Are they changed? we wonder, as we look into their faces.
We. They. Us.