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20th Chicago European Union Film Festival (March 3-31, 2017), Report No. 4 (AUSTERLITZ and THE SON OF JOSEPH)

Chicago's own version of the Grand Tour, The 20th European Union Film Festival, is moving into its final week. There's still a lot to see. Try these two films; for the full slate, check out

Sergei Loznitsa's AUSTERLITZ (Germany, 2016)

This fascinating, challenging, maybe slightly unfair documentary is composed of lengthy black-and-white shots, often beautifully composed and containing multiple planes and frames, taken by a static, semi-candid camera recording thundering hordes of international tourists tromping through the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. (From time to time, a tourist will notice the camera and peer straight back at us). Most don't behave brainlessly, though some do. Rather, they most often look tired and bored, slumping along, dutifully half-listening to their tour guide's spiel (these come in myriad languages), listlessly snapping their camera all the while.

Here, where these horrors took place, people should be thinking and feeling something. Yet too often they don't seem to be--they don't even seem to be seeing. (The film's title comes from the W.G. Sebald novel about history and memory, and how they can be lost). Sergei Loznitsa is investigating the way visitors can be turned into objects passing down an assembly line--the process of group dehumanization. In an interview with Christopher Heron in The Seventh Art, he argued that a visit to the camps should be a serious, private experience.

The film's own attitude towards the tourists is interesting to contemplate. In interviews, Loznitsa doesn't seem to care much for their "ignorant faces," but his camera doesn't judge: it simply observes. We can't help thinking some of these people would happily buy a "Belsen Was a Gas" t-shirt, if such were marketed.

In 2016 Karolyn and I visited Dachau. We went with a group, not always the way we like to do things, for precisely the reason that the group can interfere with a personal experience. Still, our guide and group were thoughtful, and we were able to have one. We could've ended up before Loznita's lens, ourselves, and so I will say that his film complicates my answer to his provocative implied question--why do tourists want to see gas chambers at all? I would've said: so we don't forget, and so it never happens again. Yet he puts his finger on the irony of the group visit--while his camera doesn't always show what's going on inside a person, too many of these people appear to be having the very opposite of a shattering experience. Karolyn and I made a strict rule for our behavior vis-a-vis photos: nothing posed. Loznitsa finds a perfect image for the banality of the concentration-camp-as-tourist attraction: a family with a selfie stick poses in front of the famous Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free) door, the same way they might at Disneyland. (We took pictures of the door, too, but absenting ourselves). They're just having a nice family trip. And I wanted to throttle them. 

Sunday, March 26th at 3:15pm and Wednesday, March 29th at 6pm

What a pleasure is Eugène Green's THE SON OF JOSEPH (France, 2016)--a film of many and unique joys. Check out my review for CINE-FILE Chicago, here, under the "European Union Film Festival" section. It plays Friday, March 24th at 6pm and Wednesday, March 29th at 6pm. 


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