“Austerlitz” shows Nazi concentration camp tourism

Austerlitz”, by Sergei Loznitsa, provides a curious film concept. In a 94-minute exercise in trolling people in black and white, the filmmaker portrays tourists to visit the museum-exhibits of the Nazi Holocaust concentration camps Dachau and Sachsenhausen.

The first ten minutes of the film portrays nothing but a people-watch of tourists entering the gates near a sign reading “Arbeit macht frei”. We notice many are carrying phone headsets to listen to commentary. Then we do start hearing some tour guide content.  One of the most interesting is that the early camps were set up for intelligence purposes: to interrogate possible dissidents against Hitler, and even intercept plots to kill Hitler.  Only later did the Jews, as well as gypsies and homosexuals, become recognizable populations.

There is a chilling scene where a guide with a British accent explains how the victims were told to expect a shower, before getting gassed with Zytron.  One couple has a picture taken in front of a black crematorium.

As for the tourists, many are attractive, slender, young white males, ironically what you expect in a gay bar. You will see the same people, with recognizable T-shirts, based on companies or sports teams, more than once.

I was not aware of this massive level of tourism. I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau on a Tuesday morning in late May, 1999, having arrived on the night train to Krakow from Berlin, and then taking a taxi to the site (about $60 for the day).  I don’t recall that there was any crowd, maybe a few other tourists walking around at some distance from me.  I did visit rooms with shoes and skeleton remains, and dorms.  I walked along the notorious railroad tracks.  I don’t recall having a headset.

In the first chapter of my novel “Angel’s Brother”, a “part time” CIA agent, married and living a normal life of a history teacher in Texas, visits Birkenau the way I did, and in a light crowd, meets a mysterious college student and rides back with him.  Why both are there develops with the story.  There was one scene in the film of a young man off by himself, on a cell phone, sitting near a wall, who looked like the college student in my novel.  There may have been one other person from the US that I recognized, appearing twice with the camera going blurred the second time, a rather strange effect.

Wikipedia picture of Dachau.

Auschwitz-Birkenau visiting information.

Name:  “Austerlitz”
Director, writer:  Sergei Loznitsa
Released:  2016
Format: 1.85:1, black and white
When and how viewed:  MICA Brown in Baltimore, 2017/5/7, fair audience
Length:  94
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Imperativ, Deja-vu
Link:  official

(Posted: Monday, May 8, 2017 at 1 PM EDT)

Oscar nominated documentary shorts for 2017: 3 of the films deal with refugees

The Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts is playing right now at Landmark West End Cinema in Washington D.C. I attended the 1:30 PM showing and it’s a good thing I bought the ticket online because it sold out. The theater has installed rocking chairs, so seating capacity is lower.

The presentation started with “Joe’s Violin” (directed Kahane Cooperman, 24 minutes). The film is a biography of 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingold. When he is 8, his family is moved to western Poland as the Nazis invade. He managed to “escape” with the Russians but some other family members went to Nazi camps and did not survive. But, at 17, after World War II, he was taken to one of Stalin’s labor camps after leaving his violin behind. Somehow he was able to buy the violin back for cigarettes. Years later he donated it to a school for girls in the Bronx, NY. A student named Brianna Perez would be able to play it. The film shows her playing Solveig’s song from Grieg’s Pier Gynt. But somehow the film title and subject matter remind me of John Madden’s “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” (2001).

“Extremis” was reviewed here Sept. 17, 2016.

4.1 Miles” (directed by Daphne Matziaraki, 24 minutes, New York Times Op-Doc) follows Greek Coast Guard captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos as he rescues refugees fleeing Turkey for the island of Lesbos (for which lesbianism is named) in a vessel that shipwrecks. He says he has no training in CPR. Once the refugees land, the townspeople have no practical choice but to take care of and house them.

There was an intermission before the remaining two films, dealing with Aleppo.

Watani: My Homeland” (directed by Marcel Mettelsiefen, 39 minutes) seems to be almost the same film as “Children of Syria” shown on PBS in April 2016 and reviewed here on a legacy blog. I’ll note that the children mention that their new town Goslar is losing population due to not enough kids and too many old people.

“White Helmets” was reviewed here Oct. 6, 2016

(Posted: Sunday, February 12, 2017 at 9 PM EST)

“Denial”: In British court, the historical fact of the Holocaust is put on trial


Name: Denial
Director, writer:  Mick Jackson, Deborah Lipstadt
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, 2016/10/9, late afternoon, fair audience
Length 110
Rating PG-13
Companies: Bleecker Street, Participant Media, BBC Films
Link: official 

Denial” (2016), directed by Mick Jackson, and based on the book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” (2005) by Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz), does what it purports: show a trial of accepted historical fact in a British court (in 2000).

British libel law puts the burden of proof on the defense, whereas in American courts it’s 51% preponderance of the evidence requirement on the plaintiff.  I can recall a television interview in late 1997 with British author Kitty Kelly (“The Royals”), that in the UK (even after Brexit) truth is not an absolute defense to libel as it is in the U.S.

As the movie opens, Lipstadt is lecturing in Atlanta, when notorious Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) disrupts her.  She refuses to debate him the way some of us would refuse to debate climate change today.


Soon she receives a letter in her outdoor mailbox warning her about the litigation.  There’s no spectacular if brief scene involving a hovering process server.  I would wonder right off if she really could be forced to pay damages from outside the U.S.

The movie moves to London, and her legal team (headed by Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) comes up with a particular strategy:  a bench (not a jury) trial, and Lipstadt will not testify (which takes some potential sails out of the movie’s courtroom drama).  Now, Irving’s ideas (no direct photographic evidence from survivors, and “No Holes, No Holocaust”) is rather easily overcome by the direct testimony of myriads of survivors, down to their showing their disfiguring forearm tattoos.  Lipstadt wants to give survivors, as well as herself, a chance to testify.

The movie makes an interesting field trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where it explores the way Zytron was poured down chimneys into the gas chambers, and why the concentrations for “delousing” were so much higher.  The photography, nearly black and white hear, shows the expanse of the ruins of the barracks. The film moves to Krakow for another scene on the commons square.

My own novel manuscript for “Angel’s Brother” starts at Auschwitz, with the sign “Arbeit macht frei”. I go into a different direction, but then there is another scene at a hotel in Krakow (in my book).  I felt like I was watching a preview of my own future movie.  The town square scene in Krakow as interesting to me, as I had walked through it on May 25, 1999.  I stayed in a small hotel just out of sight from the camera in the movie.  I saw the museums (and remember the shoes as shown in the movie), but not the expanse of barracks.    I came into town by night train from Berlin, around 6 AM, before I took a “cab” to Birkenau.

The movie comes up with a curious logical twist toward the end:  does Irving’s obvious “anti-Semitism” and racism make the possibility of truth of his allegations less legally relevant?

The feature (at Angelika Mosaic) was preceded by a pre-show short film “Levitation” with a dancer on black-and-white abstract designs (steps and boxes, arranged as a stage).

Wikipedia attribution link for Krakow picture under CCSA 3.0 by FotoCavallo.

(Posted: Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016 at 10 PM EDT)

“Labyrinth of Lies”: idealistic young prosecutor in 1958 brings “ordinary people” to justice in West Germany for having supported Nazis


Name: “Labyrinth of Lies”
Director, writer:  Giulio Ricciarelli
Released:  2014
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed: Netlix DVD
Length 124
Rating R   (language: German)
Companies: Sony Pictures Classics, Universal International,
Link: official

The German drama “Labyrinth of Lies” (“Im Labyrinth des Schweigens”), directed by Giulio Ricciarelli, and written with Elisabeth Bartel, shows how the pre-unification Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) got into the game of prosecuting “ordinary people” who had turned out to be complicit Nazi War criminals, after the Nuremberg trials.

The narrative is seen through a 28-year-old prosecutor, and handsome and perfect “Aryan” Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), who has attracted attention of a reporter for prosecuting ordinary traffic and misdemeanor cases vigorously.  He has at the same time wanted go to after a teacher who had been part of the SS and isn’t supposed to be allowed to teach, but authorities look the other way.  The reporter starts educating him on Auschwitz, which in 1958 still few Germans really understood.  He tries to learn about it at a public library, and finds that it will take eight weeks to get a book on the topic.  That’s how slow information flow could be four decades before the Internet (remember interlibrary loans?)

Gradually Radmann’s boss Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss – Bauer is the subject also of “The People v. Fritz Bauer”)) becomes more supportive, and Radmann becomes involved in the search for Josef Mengele and eventually Adolf Eichmann.  Along the way, at the film’s exact middle, he gets seduced by a seamstress. Marlene (Frederike Becht).  That leads him to a personal crisis, the discovery that his own father had been active with the Nazis. The film eventually ends with start of a trial of hundreds of former Auschwitz workers.

The film waterskiis over the question of whether ordinary citizens should be prosecuted for crimes they are ordered to commit by their leadership.

My own first visit to “West Germany” happened in the summer of 1972, when I arrived in Frankfurt.  The train to Hamburg came within sight distance of the East German border.  In those days, people stayed in hostels without private bathrooms when traveling.  I revisited in 1999, and visited Berlin and Dresden.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Frankfurt skyline by Eli Beckman, CCSA International 4.0.

(Posted: Friday, September 30, 2016 at 11:15 AM EDT)