Cool Story Bro: "Austerlitz" looks at Holocaust tourism amid endless self-documentation

Sergei Losnitza's "Austerlitz" takes a look at clashing forms of documentation—historical and social. With survivors dying, the Holocaust will soon live on as a scattered assortment of testimonies and artifacts, an undeniable record that nonetheless has to reckon with a rising tide of revisionism (be it from Sean Spicer or Marine Le Pen). Even the act of remembering itself has been revised by the instant documentation made available by our phones. The documentary takes its name from the novel by W.G. Sebald, who also reached into the unknowable known of the Holocaust, as it is survived versus how it is documented.

A spartan set-up without the frills of a voice over, "Austerlitz" is 90 minutes of fixed shots showing tourists at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where it looks more like a day at the zoo or an Orioles game than it does the former site of systematic extermination. Tourists are a walking fashion show for novelty shirts bought on a cruise, the most brazen of which reads "COOL STORY BRO" at the site of one of the lowest points of human history. Another person wears a "Jurassic Park" shirt and the historical simulations of "Schindler's List" collapse into the nightmare theme park Spielberg released the same year, all over again.

There is ceaseless documentation happening, but rarely does it seem to contribute anything of value to the historical record. The "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate offers an opportunity for a man to pose as if behind bars. Tourists cosplay on a pole where prisoners were likely hung for torture or death. We witness free, blasé passage through areas once heavily regulated. There's an almost Tati-esque quality to the way crowds shuffle from one architectural death trap to the next, the mass minimized against the behemoth and the behemoth minimized by the indifference of the mass.

We arrive in medias res to one guide's lecture about some way in which the history of the camp was reconfigured into Communist propaganda. He calls it a historical distortion for petty reasons, but since the Cold War is over and tourists are turning gravesites into a photo opportunity, it's a bit of a stone in a house of broken glass. When Trump is xeroxing the Holocaust Museum website's front page for remembrance day remarks, the efficacy of turning history into a script for half-interested tourists seems even weaker.

Underneath tall, hard-to-escape walls, a guide discusses their construction and the various usages of the prison before it became fully committed to extermination. His lecture is interrupted by another guide's in a different language, as a student balances a water bottle on her head for laughs.

The panoptic effect of the guard towers has lost its power and Foucault's theory of self-discipline under mass surveillance is inverted; a general sense of decorum is nearly impossible to achieve by design. As the conversation around "Son of Saul" showed, there's no magic formula for properly representing a historical atrocity like the Holocaust. Laying bare the counterintuitive frivolity of its presentation here seems almost nihilistic, but it's committed in a way, that perhaps, its subjects are not.

"Austerlitz," directed by Sergei Loznitsa, screens on May 4 at 5 p.m. and May 7 at 11:15 a.m. at MICA Brown Center.

Copyright © 2019, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy