Austerlitz review: Director Sergei Loznitsa lets you create your own story in this voyeuristic juxtaposition of the lack of connectivity from a modern society to real events.

Austerlitz review by Dan Bullock, Sydney Film Festival.

Austerlitz is an hour and a half of black and white documentary footage of people walking around two concentration camp memorials in Germany but it doesn’t contain any voiceover or narrative direction since that side of development is up to you, as the viewer, and how you choose to portray events happening in front of you.

Director Sergei Loznitsa filmed at the Dachau and Sachsenhausen memorial camps, near Munich and Berlin respectively, as his focus to analyse tourists who visit to learn about what happened there during World War II. His fixed-cameras frame individuals from all countries and cultures exploring the various elements of the camps with the only real, audible dialogue being that of people giving guided tours in numerous languages. While he offers subtitles here, the perspective isn’t designed to inform because we’re actually meant to be watching the movement of people coming and going.

In these places, humans were shot, tortured and psychologically broken while their basic human rights and identity were ripped away by other human beings. It’s not said that nothing has ever come close, or doesn’t still happen in places we don’t know about, but to remember these events and consider the reality is something I believe to be vitally important. The observations bring up the very simple question: Why do these tourists come here?

I visited Sachsenhausen and for me, it was a chance to try and understand the gravity of horror or, at least, pay my respects by giving these ghosts of history a moment of my own existence. I’ll never be able to understand why it happened, or what people went through, but I felt like it was something I needed to do. What Austerlitz highlights is the strange behaviours of tourists, including taking selfies by the gates which is baffling in all contexts, and generally forgetting where they are, like they’re visiting Trafalgar Square or the Sydney Opera House. I’m not sure if this depends on the age of someone, or the type of person they are, but I’m hopeful most visit to try to understand something that can never fully be rationalised.

On my visit, a group of us were shown around by a guide who respectfully reminded us of the difference between touring somewhere, and respecting somewhere with an awful history. Generally, I consider myself reasonably self-aware of situations like these because for the final year of my degree, I worked in and around war memorial (Particularly from WW1 and WW2) to study how they affect response both an emotional and disconnected sense. While I appreciate the juxtaposition of the lack of connectivity from a modern society to real events, often distracted by taking pictures or filming on GoPro’s without a moment to actually look, I ironically found Lozitsa’s documentary demanding on my attention. This isn’t because I don’t respect what happened but I find this type of film would have similar impact within an exhibition about the atrocities. On the other hand, I could question my own experience to such events, and whether my familiarity means I’m slightly versed in how I react. When you consider what other human beings went through, and the horrendous occurrences, I should humbly shut up for the duration and give my time to the film from the freedom I’ve been given.

Austerlitz won’t be for everyone because if you quickly understand the perspective, you won’t need the time to work out how you feel about it. Conversely, this doesn’t mean it’s not important because it is and so, with that in mind and however you feel, just giving your time to exist without taking a selfie or checking your phone might well be the principal respects you can offer in response to a tragic historical era.

Austerlitz is showing at the Sydney Film Festival