Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa (The Event, Maïdan, My Joy) returns with his latest non-fiction film, Austerlitz, which looks how groups of tourists act in the concentration camps in Dachau and Sachsenhausen. The film had its North American premiere at TIFF 2016, where Sergei discussed with Christopher Heron how the film was conceived of, produced, and what questions the experience has provoked within himself.

The Seventh ArtWhat provoked you to make this film?

Sergei Loznitsa: As usual, the whole film starts from an impression: I was just casually in this kind of place – another camp, Buchenwald – and I had such a strong impression from my visit. I started thinking, “What am I doing here? How is it possible that only 70 years ago there were dead bodies around. How can I stay and look inside a crematorium? What do I want to see there?” These kind of questions. I look around at people and observe ignorant faces, tourists. It’s strange. I don’t think it’s good as a tourist place.

Last night you mentioned the books that were on your mind, obviously [W.G. Sebald’s] Austerlitz, but also [René Girard’s] Violence and the Sacred and Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”. Were these comparisons you felt after you had this impression or did you consider them when you first had the impression?

Not only those books, but you can think back to a lot of things. You could remember Don Quixote, also. This kind of ridiculous situation in our lives that you can meet time from time. This is a place where some action proposes for us to think about what we are and what we are a doing, many things. It’s a very simple film from one side: just observations of people who observe something. But when you understand what they observe, it gets very strange. I don’t know what to do with it, I don’t know what kind of solution… Probably everything will continue, but it’s a warning about our future. It’s a kind of ignorance to the destiny of people. This is a characteristic you can often meet during the war, during dangerous times. 

How many times did you have to go to the two camps to film? How many days did you film?

We filmed every day during this period. There were some gaps because the cameraman couldn’t come or this kind of technical issue, but we would travel. When I work on a topic, I would like to see everything that belongs to this topic. I was with a team, a small team of five people, in all these kinds of places. I shot, also, in all the places and after that I chose only two camps, because you can see it more closely and openly with a lot of people. The other camps are also such a horrible… a lot of things for tourists to see… but they’re not close to big cities. It means that people come because there’s a good flight connection or it’s near a big city like Berlin or Munich. They probably visit other museums, and also in Sachsenhausen or Dachau, probably shopping. This is why there are so many people in these places. I also visited during the winter and can you imagine such a crowd? A lot of groups from United States, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina – interesting. No groups from Russia, Poland, these Slavic countries. Some of them I could hear Russian language, some couldn’t come alone without an organization. The groups are mostly from Golden Million countries, from Europe or United States, where they can be a tourist because they have money from that. A lot from Nordic countries, too. It’s also an interesting investigation, psychologically, who wants to [come] and how they are organized, what they are talking about. For different people, there are different approaches, how they present history. It was some group from a school in Finland played a game [laughs]. The teacher, probably, showed them how the prisoners moved, but it looks like a game. From time to time they laughed. It’s for another film, but I shot this episode. I have this material, but for another film. Buy why not? I don’t have any exact solution. Of course, it’s a moral question or an aesthetic question, aesthetic first. 

Were those guides provided by the organization that oversees the site or are they private tour guides? They all look different, different uniforms.

I think everybody can be [a guide] and have a tour company – a guide that belongs to this organization that they ask to make a tour. They are quite educated, some of them students. It’s not a main job to be a guide here, it’s more as a hobby or a second job. 

The guide in the Arsenal jersey seemed to question whether certain things were facts or speculation and that seemed like an interesting device for a tour guide – to call into question the notion of reality. Is that something particular to him?

Ah, the last guide, this is also strange for me. I catch this guy in this episode, sometimes it’s strange what they’re saying. It was a good ‘take’ and I think his text is good for the end of the film. He’s probably a student.

It suggests there’s no script for them.

No, no, no, everybody can do what they want [laughs]. What people want to listen to or say. Interesting question, can somebody make a complete tour with fake information? Of course, why not. Nobody will punish them. 

Do you think there’s a behaviour that’s different when tourists are in groups as opposed to alone? There’s a shot where there is a young woman who is alone and she seems to be more respectful or at least processing the site in a different way. A lot of your recent films tend to focus on people and their behaviour in groups. 

Yeah, yeah. I think a visitor in this type of place is a serious decision and when somebody decides to do it, they have to think before because it’s quite a serious experience – a private experience. It’s possible to do it only alone for me, without people around. In this moment you can open a little bit to what you see and think about it. It’s not a place for praying together. I used that moment, we shot that moment when we were doing our camera test. It was the first day, I always check if I can shoot in the place, checking the camera, the place, everything. If I get the same feeling when I watch after or not. Because things we can see, not all of them you can shoot. It’s strange, but it doesn’t matter, digital or film, because the camera transforms somehow what you can see. And I transform something, catch something that we cannot define, but we can feel it. It was a shot that we did at the end of the day, but just a test. After that, I tried to repeat the shot, because it’s interesting when you can see it close-up, more or less. Someone who stays in the frame long enough, goes out, and somebody comes in, then leaves, then somebody comes in – one-by-one. You can read their face, the kind of expression you can see and understand what this person is thinking about. Somehow these four women sent us emotions, because when I watch this moment, I feel. Before, I didn’t feel anything. I just see a lot of mosquitos moving around the space. But now it appears like a person, a personality. Of course, I use this moment as an emotional culmination and prepare the whole film for this moment. I tried all the time when we were shooting to repeat this, but I couldn’t catch such a good shot. Can you imagine? It happens or not – the happiness of a documentary filmmaker when you get this shot. I used two or three shots from that first testing day.

Did you have any set-ups planned? I liked the shot through the window where you see the visitors’ reflections. It reminded me of your short “Reflections” in Bridges of Sarajevo (2014).

Ah yes. The idea came just because it’s a nice picture, it’s a good, interesting composition when you can see a reflection and inside, they are like one body. Every film is pregnant with the next. In my case, it is like that, because they are all connected. Even Maidan (2014) connects with this film; the same stream, the same people, but in this stream of people they are not people… like a movement of unknown faces. It’s not a personality here. In Maidan, they were all people, who came to the place to fight, to be people with dignity. The personality appears. In this stream, the place and what people are doing somehow steals the personality from the people. Maidan was constructed like a classical tragedy with fighting, a protagonist’s body constructed from the people that fights and after that you have victims of this fighting. Here, you have victims that are from 70 years ago and people just come to the place, observe with absolutely ignorant figures on their faces. I don’t know why they are doing that. Probably to touch a little bit – from safe distance – horrible things, to touch death a little bit from a safe distance. It’s what culture proposes to us: how we think about history or how we try to hide ourselves from history. How we don’t want to understand or even if it’s right to understand what history means. There are a lot of questions to think about, just to be there.

When the sites have recreations of things, that seems very close to the book Austerlitz. This feeling that despite looking at the object, you’re moving farther away from it. You mentioned how even if there was a symbol that suggested something missing, it would even be more meaningful than to try to recreate the objects. It makes it more safe, as you say, there’s more of a distance.

These places, for me, they are absolutely empty. Just a place where people were killed, that’s all. The barracks are reconstructions, let’s say Disneyland; they build the decorations. Only the buildings made from stone. But why and for what did they save the crematorium? It’s interesting that in Dachau is inside a nice building in German style, a nice building with everything. The ridiculous thing – now it’s not so in the open – but if you see from the side in a hole, you can see a fire extinguisher. Can you imagine [laughs]? Is this a joke? An extinguisher in the crematorium. But it’s on the route, it must be there. Somebody now takes care of it, cleaning, keeping it. Ah, and what kills is me is that they put lamps so that the light directs you to the hole in the crematorium. It’s built like a decoration for spectators to see better inside this hole. What’s there to see there? What are they helping to see with this light? Somebody is thinking about that, some artist who makes the decorations. He’s thinking and saying, “Let’s put this lamp and put it there.” It’s over the line. But it’s a question of taste, it’s a bad taste. 

You said one of the sites had a chapel and that you used some of the sound. I’m interested in how you approached the sound.

The moment where there’s a close-up, there is a priest praying that we recorded in the dome. It’s in Lithuanian language, a Catholic prayer. It’s interesting, the atmosphere of this place. A lot of things that are in the sound… because sound is much more complicated, I don’t want to put exact sentences. Only sometimes. The rest of the time it must be an ocean of voices where you can only recognize some words. It’s like language was crushed, like when you’re crossing the ocean and it has a crash. Language is crushed here, it was quite a lot of work. Now when you listen to it, you hear a whirr, the movement of voices of the crowd.