"Throughout his career," begins Michael Sicinski, writing for Cinema Scope, "as both a documentarian and the director of two feature films, Sergei Loznitsa has explored various facets of one fundamental subject: the way the human race records its own history…. With Austerlitz, Loznitsa may have produced his finest film yet. Exhibiting a simplicity and intellectual acuity that is far too rare in the field of documentary, Loznitsa has created a film whose cumulative impact will stay with you long after you watch it, tinting and shading the way that you experience a multitude of previously ordinary cultural practices. So basic in the telling—a record of several days’ worth of visitors to the Holocaust memorial at the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienberg, Germany—Austerlitz is a film that in many ways exemplifies the critical theory of Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. What is the net effect for humanity when, faced with the drive to remember the unfathomable, we employ the grossly inadequate tools at our disposal?"

"Over the last 20 years, he has quietly assembled a dauntingly impressive filmography, including several shorts of masterpiece level," writes Neil Young in the Hollywood Reporter. Here, "Loznitsa and his editor Danielius Kokanauskis select sequences which show the tourists behave with considerable levity, in a manner likely to strike most viewers as inappropriate. This is particularly the case among crowds, whereas during those very rare instances when individuals have space and quiet to themselves they display much more in the way of somber emotion. Many of the visitors are young people in sunglasses, t-shirts and shorts, who amble around as if they would in a zoo, museum or other workaday attraction. And the lengthy final shot, a Lumiere-quoting sequence of tourists leaving through the gate of this infernal 'factory,' includes what is perhaps the most jaw-droppingly crass deployment of a 'selfie stick' imaginable."

"The images are filmed in black and white, the camera still and the general mood unnervingly indifferent, or distracted," notes Nicolas Rapold in the New York Times. "Mr. Loznitsa describes the film as an effort to reckon with an existential crisis he felt on his first visit to Buchenwald…. 'I realized, in front of the crematorium, that I was myself like a tourist,' he said…. 'It was like in a Kafka novel. I can’t be in this place,' Mr. Loznitsa continued. 'And my question is: How can we keep memory? Is it possible in general to share this memory?'"

Jonathan Romney for Screen: "The film’s title, according to Loznitsa, is an allusion to W.G. Sebald’s novel-essay Austerlitz, in which the name carries echoes of Auschwitz; perhaps the suggestion is that the visitors don’t really know where they are, and think they’re in another camp whose name they can’t pronounce…. Key to the film’s approach, as in Maidan, is a complex sound design (the sound is by Vladimir Golovnitski, with mixing by Ivo Heger). Individual noises are highlighted in the mix: hence, a constant background chorus of clicking and bleeping cameras, along with footsteps, wind sounds, creaking doors, blithely chattering voices. At key points, the voices of tour guides are foregrounded—their texts read by credited voice performers—delivering information about the camp’s history, and the atrocities that took place there."

More from Thomas Humphrey at Screen Anarchy.


Updates, 9/9: "There are 39 shots in 94 minutes, not counting title cards," notes Tommaso Tocci at the Film Stage. "The fixed camera, in digital black-and-white, starts outside the camp, near the entrance, before making its way to the main gate, the courtyard, the interior halls, the crematory ovens, and back out again…. Is a 'Cool story, bro' t-shirt the tipping point of distastefulness? Or perhaps one sporting the Jurassic Park logo? Is at the appearance of the first selfie stick (around the half-hour mark) that you draw the line?… In a nutshell, the uneasiness of this realization is the film itself. Loznitsa milks it expertly, ever the master at subtly linking one image to the next."

"Resolving to not show certain things, rather than putting things freely on display, the auteur places the most emphasis on what is out of shot," notes Silvia Ricciardi at Cineuropa, "on the things that the people in the frame can see beyond the walls and partitions, which are inaccessible to the viewer."

Update, 9/12: "At a certain point," writes Filmmaker's Vadim Rizov, "I started wondering if maybe taking a smiling photo in front of a crematorium was, in some warped way, a positive development—a way to stand in front of foul history and assert one’s possibly illusory freedom from it. And who has the right to tell the guy in a yarmulke he shouldn’t be posing for a photo? Austerlitz is a film about what happens when solemnity becomes near-impossible to access, for reasons of chronological distance and the fact that any such site is visited under conditions which are the exact opposite of how it functioned—and, if that’s sad, and if it’s definitely stupid to pose smiling under a gate reading 'ARBEIT MACHT FREI,' it points to a dilemma of historical imagination rather than a moral problem per se."

Updates, 9/15: For Variety's Guy Lodge, "if there’s a tacit ruefulness to Loznitsa’s cinematic eavesdropping, this isn’t necessarily an angry film. As it becomes increasingly clear just how little connection many of these daytrippers feel to the atrocities they’re looking in on, there’s something to be said for a present—however imperfect—in which the Holocaust can feel so alien to them."

At CineVue, Ben Nicholson grants that "there's a temptation to decry the selfie generation for not adhering to the suitable decorum for their surroundings but this is too simplistic. There's a conflict inherent in the idea of a memorial becoming an exhibit and, as Loznitsa reminds us, educational."

Updates, 9/18: Daniel Kasman in the Notebook: "The only common incursion of the vulgar, beyond some ridiculous t-shirt choices, is the constant photo taking, selfies and partial reenactments—look, I’m stuck behind the gates of Auschwitz! But all this is gathered in the first minutes of the film, and eventually I found the sheer sameness of kind of people and of their behavior repetitive, hardly surprised by the sameness in demeanor, look and attitude of the camp’s visitors. The camera eventually seemed as blasé as they were, which in its own way was quite chilling."

But for the Los Angeles Times' Justin Chang, the "longer you watch Austerlitz, the more it reveals… The very presence of tourists holds up an eerie echo to history: Does their freedom of movement inadvertently mock the memory of the inmates who were so constricted? Or is it a kind of reclamation, done in defiance of the camp’s dreadful original purpose?"

Update, 9/23: From Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook:

Concentration-camp tourism understandably dismays the sober director of My Joy, yet there’s a mordant edge to his unbroken views of visitors, including teeming long-shots that resemble Jacques Tati frames. People amble through these zones of unspeakable suffering as if at a particularly prosaic mall, guides barely hang on to their groups’ attention (“Folks, could you not eat in here, please?”), knowledge is shaky and selfie-sticks are ubiquitous. Still, I thought Loznitsa’s gaze in the midst of these gawking crowds was not merely scolding, but more interestingly open and complicated: Do the attitudes of these passersby, so packed with technological advancements yet so vaguely curious about a grave past, reflect only complacency and ignorance, or also perhaps a variety of personal ways to confront horrors they can hardly imagine? Rigorously balancing the dangers of historical amnesia with the variegated revelations of people-watching, it suggests an unlikely collaboration between Claude Lanzmann and José Luis Guerín.

Update, 11/24: "Austerlitz gives us enough time, and what a luxury time has become, to sidestep the easy moral superiority that we could claim in our comfortable position as viewers and to delve deeper into our own experience," writes Michaël Van Remoortere for photogénie. "It turns watching—and with watching we mean observing, looking, gazing in an attempt at understanding—back into an experience. When we watch Austerlitz, we watch ourselves watching ourselves and this has been the purpose of art for as long as it exists. When we stare into Austerlitz, we stare into the Nietzschean abyss that lies at the core of mankind."

Update, 12/21: "Loznitsa’s project in a sense echoes Primo Levi’s who, in his memoir of Auschwitz, intended not 'to formulate new accusations… rather, to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind,'" writes Jay Kuehner for Cinema Scope. "Just what these certain aspects are, in Austerlitz’s disquieting view, remains tantalizingly left to the viewer, themselves further removed still from the ruins, from the spectacle of past suffering whose gates are welcomingly flung open."

Update, 12/22: "Time and again one comes back to the question: are concentration camps churches of a secular religion?" Olaf Möller in Film Comment: "The religion is called memory—a religion much fought over on those sites, for not every memory is welcomed; one guide in particular gets lost in an anti-GDR-rant opining that the evil communist state abused the memory of the victims for its cause."

The 2016 fall film festival indexes: Venice, Telluride and Toronto.