'Austerlitz': Venice Review

Courtesy of TIFF
A challenging but stimulating take on the present-day sites of Nazi atrocities.

The latest documentary from the much-acclaimed Sergei Loznitsa looks at visitors to the sites of former Nazi death camps.

Few filmmakers have ever segued back and forth between fiction and documentary, shorts and features, past and present, with the grace and skill of Ukraine's Sergei Loznitsa. He delivers his latest slice of observational, stimulatingly contemplative non-fiction with Austerlitz, premiering out of competition at Venice before heading to Toronto's Wavelengths section.

Loznitsa uses fixed, steady, black-and-white digital camera angles to scrutinize tourists at the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp north of Berlin, dispensing with voiceover, captions or any kind of onscreen text. The challengingly austere results are unlikely to gain the director many new followers, but will consolidate his sky-high reputation with existing devotees. Plentiful festival play is a given, with niche theatrical exposure in receptive territories possibly also indicated.

Both of Loznitsa's fictional features, My Joy (2010) and In The Fog (2012), have competed at Cannes, while his epic survey of political turmoil in central Kiev, Maidan (2014), matched the pair in terms of acclaim and international prizes. Over the last 20 years he has quietly assembled a dauntingly impressive filmography, including several shorts of masterpiece level. His is an oeuvre of remarkable consistency in terms of its intellectual rigor, technical excellence and intense focus on the interplay between recent history and current epochs.

The latter preoccupation is also a touchstone of the late German novelist W.G. Sebald, the title of whose last novel, published in 2001, Loznitsa borrows here. Sebald's best-selling Austerlitz, adapted into a film of the same name by Stan Neumann last year starring Denis Lavant, ranges widely across European geography and chronology  but pivots on events at the Theresienstadt death camp in the early 1940s. Intended as a propaganda-oriented showcase camp for foreign visitors, where inmates were shown off as happy workers, Theresienstadt was the setting for a notorious pseudo-documentary, known in English as A Documentary Film From the Jewish Settlement Area

Most of the film is now lost, with only a battered 20-minute fragment remaining —
of utterly chilling impact. The contrast with the crisp, clean images of Loznitsa's digital cameras could not be more stark, even though in terms of buoyant mood there are as many smiling faces in both films. Shot over what looks like a single day in mid-summer, Austerlitz deploys some kind of intriguingly ingenious hidden-camera techniques to observe the visitors without drawing attention to the cameras themselves — as was the case in his 20-minute 2015 short The Old Jewish Cemetery, shot in a bucolic Latvia park, which in retrospect looks like a dry-run sketch for this much wider canvas.

Loznitsa and his editor Danielius Kokanauskis select sequences which show the tourists behave with considerable levity, in a manner likely to strike most viewers as inappropriate. This is particularly the case among crowds, whereas during those very rare instances when individuals have space and quiet to themselves they display much more in the way of somber emotion. Many of the visitors are young people in sunglasses, t-shirts and shorts, who amble around as if they would in a zoo, museum or other workaday attraction. And the lengthy final shot, a Lumiere-quoting sequence of tourists leaving through the gate of this infernal "factory," includes what is perhaps the most jaw-droppingly crass deployment of a "selfie stick" imaginable.

Shots are generally held for three or four minutes apiece, as we proceed from the entrance gates — emblazoned with the notorious slogan Arbeit Macht Frei ("Work sets you free") — around various sections, following in the footsteps of victims as they were so efficiently organized, killed and incinerated. The visuals are unfussy but effective in terms of composition, but the truly special element of Austerlitz is the audioscape which accompanies them, crafted by the superlative Vladimir Golovnitski working with sound mixer Ivo Heger. 

Individual voices are kept deliberately undecipherable for the first 25 minutes, and then for the following hour we hear and see guides explaining the workings of the camp to tour parties of variable levels of engagement. The presence of nine "synchronized speakers" in the end credits suggests that the soundtrack may be much more manipulated and crafted that it may initially appear — which would be very much in line with Loznitsa's usual practice.

Human tones, bird cries, church bells, the rising and falling wind, insectoid whirrings, unidentifiable creakings and crashings ... all combine into an immersive, often chilling and always compelling world of sound, which manages to subtly convey the lurking horrors beneath Sachsenhausen's mute, neutral surfaces. We are, to use a phrase from the Sebald novel, "like a deaf man whose hearing has been miraculously restored."

Venue: Venice Film Festival
Production company: Imperativ Film

Director-screenwriter: Sergei Loznitsa
Cinematographers: Sergei Loznitsa, Jesse Mazuch
Editor: Danielius Kokanauskis
Sales: Imperativ Film, Berlin

No rated, 93 minutes