Sergio Loznitsa’s hypnotic and challenging documentary is the sort of fare that makes Film Festivals such a vital corridor. Entirely without narrative, Austerlitz places you as voyeur on a beautiful summer’s day in Auschwitz – now a tourist attraction.
There’s is little doubt that Austerlitz will be a challenge for many viewers. Some will see it as an endurance test, others as morally affronting but no matter who sits down to watch this wholly non-discriminatory observational work there’s little doubt that the film maker’s point gets across. Where is our respect for history?
Shot in black and white, composed of long, uninterrupted takes, Loznitsa shows us that the location where some 960,000+ Jews were slaughtered in World War 2 is now populated by transient tourists who treat the site more like a holiday spot than that of one with such horrifying historical significance.
Confronting less in a shocking way and moreso in an ideological way we are greeted with tour groups of several nationalities walking these halls like a zoo, teenagers with headphones and selfie sticks taking photos of themselves in front of the gates and buildings, a woman wanders with a printed map and guide in her hand like she’s touring an art gallery, a punter in a Jurassic Park T-Shirt films himself in a hallway, and the list goes on.. It begs the question: Do they actually know where they are?
It’s this wholly unsettling feeling that festers in your stomach as you watch Austerlitz. The garish commercialisation of a site of such atrocity where the identity of Auschwitz has been lost to bus loads of tourists happily smiling and taking photos of themselves.
Some may find the 94 minute duration a bridge too far, but the morbid curiosity of watching teems of people just wander through like it’s a shopping centre or amusement park is an intoxicating and wholly hypnotic.
The unrelenting feelings of disappointment and disbelief wash over you as you also eaves drop on conversations that don’t bear relevance to the site, as families take group photos of themselves in front of the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free) gates, and as swarms of people pour in and out of the dorms.
A sensational edition to the Melbourne International Film Festival’s 2017 Experimentations Section, Austerlitz is the very reason film festivals exist. It challenges you, breaks from the normal spoon fed narrative of documentary film making and demands you to interpret what you are seeing without direction. Be bold, be brave and challenge yourself!