Sergei Loznitsa is a master of observational cinema. The Ukrainian filmmaker is the man behind Maidan (2014), by far the most sophisticated and choreographic take on the violent occupation of Kiev's main square during the beginning of the civil war (whoever thought Winter of Fire was good should watch this, and think again). After The Event (2015)—an impeccable found-footage composition on Leningrad's reaction throughout the Russian Putsch of 1991—Loznitsa continued his site-specific documentary research with Austerlitz.

Quoting the W.G. Sebald novel by the same name, Austerlitz was shot in Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp eighteen miles from Berlin, where more than 30,000 prisoners died during World War II. Today it's a tourist attraction. The view is shocking, more than we would expect: visitors sloppily shuffling about in their flip-flops, wearing “Cool Story Bro” t-shirts, and taking selfies in front of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the entrance gate. As some cheerfully re-enact the executions for the sake of photographic souvenirs, others anxiously ask the guides when they can finally eat their sandwiches—even if standing in front of crematories. What we can grasp of these behaviors is Loznitsa's major concern. The filmmaker managed to camouflage himself perfectly despite the huge equipment: Very few passersby look into the camera, perhaps for being too occupied with looking into their own photographic devices. Austerlitz's tourists seem blind. Yet if the filmmaker's position stands out as disturbingly bold, in a “genre” that didn't experiment since Claude Lanzmann's monumental Shoah (1985), the director approaches the Holocaust through non-fiction as no one has done before. In each scene the architecture remains always in focus, the only framed object maintaining an aura of dignity. We're nailed to the screen for an hour and a half, watching apparently meaningless images. It is precisely in this contrast—the historic evidence of the place and the impossibility of explaining it—that the deepest meaning may be found.

Austerlitz premiered in Venice, where I met up with the director. The film also will be part of a retrospective on Sergei Loznitsa's work during the IDFA, beginning today.

'Austerlitz' (Photo courtesy of Déjà-vu Film)

Clara Miranda Scherffig: One of the impressive things about the documentary is that almost no one looks into the camera. Where did you place the camera and sound?

Sergei Loznitsa: The camera was on the street, very openly. I didn't hide it. I think it is rude to hide the camera. Ours was a big Sony, one of the last models with big lenses. We also had a cinema tripod, everything. The set-up was very serious. The sound was recorded from within the camera and by a sound designer working [on location]. We did additional recordings for the guides' explanations. Only once some American tourists came and told me that I wasn't allowed to shoot without their permission. But European law allows to shoot in public spaces. Sometimes people did notice the camera, but they didn't care because they were already surrounded by so many devices. Why care about another one?

Miranda Scherffig: Do you think they didn't see that your camera was 'more important' than theirs? 

Loznitsa: I didn't research this directly with them. I like to be unrecognizable, and if you stay long enough in one place you'll become part of the same of scenery.

Miranda Scherffig: Where does Austerlitz take place?

Loznitsa: We didn't shoot exclusively in Sachsenhausen but also in Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Mittelbau-Dora, Neuengamme. I wanted to collect the images from these camps, to see what happens when I put the camera in these places. Eventually I chose Sachsenhausen because it's visited by a lot of tourists and you can observe streams of people. Their behavior is different when they are alone than when they are in a group. They become a tribe. I believe it's impossible to observe places such as Sachsenhausen during an excursion, in a group. It's a private experience.

Miranda Scherffig: How did you compose the framing? Especially the first scenes are very much layered through windows, buildings, boundaries. 

Loznitsa: I arranged the composition according to the architecture. The main thing is the architecture. People are a secondary element. If you consider the person as the main object, at the center, it could come across as a 'wrong' composition. The individual is never the main object. Sometimes the framing cuts out people, sometimes they're out of the center.

'Austerlitz' (Photo courtesy of Déjà-vu Film)

Miranda Scherffig: Is it correct to say that architecture is always in focus?

Loznitsa: Yes! And it's a total symmetry. For me death is a total symmetry.

Miranda Scherffig: Can you speak about the work you did with sound? We hear a lot of snaps, clicks, and zooms coming from the visitors' devices. Did you enhance that in postproduction?

Loznitsa: Oh, yes. We worked on sound for about three months. It's a very serious job we did there. Firstly we recorded on-set sounds and afterwards the sound designer recorded a lot of extra noises and atmosphere sound. Then we designed sound. We did foley and other effects—we made a composition. It's very hard to reproduce the sound of a crowd while at the same time avoiding to hear a single human voice. Perhaps the viewer catches a few sentences. But each word disappears in a sea of voices, as if speaking underwater. It's interesting to see how sound changes our attention. Regarding the clicks: I have thousands of those, from all different cameras and brands. We chose the best ones and rearranged them also in a sort of musical composition.

Miranda Scherffig: The film is presented as showing the various moments of a visit; we follow the tourists from the entrance to the exit, throughout the camp. Did you follow the tours or did you edit it?

Loznitsa: It's not an easy task to open a film on a concentration camp. I decided to show first of all the architecture, with little additions of open spaces. I didn't want to show everything immediately, but did it step by step. I was keen on keeping the opening sequence [where we see just a group of people holding their audioguides, in a confused hubbub] without texts. I wanted the beginning to be crowded with people yet without the audience catching any specific sentence. Otherwise, you know, you'll immediately start to read the subtitles. I proposed not to listen, but to watch. So the first time we see subtitles it's like fifteen or twenty minutes into the film. Also, I wanted to show the different emotional stages.

Miranda Scherffig: As a progression?

Loznitsa: Yes, as a progression. Of course the culmination [of the touristic path and of the emotions] also entails extermination. That is not my choice—that's the point of the whole visit. This is how it is intended: entrance, overview of some routines—so areas like prisons, barracks, kitchen or working spaces—and after that, extermination! The camps show what life was like there, and it does so by keeping the same order. In this sense, extermination is a sort of culmination of the tour. After that you may rest, go to the toilet, eat a sandwich, and then finally take the bus home.

Miranda Scherffig: At the very end we see visitors coming out of the gates. Nobody cares anymore, it seems like they're completely fulfilled by the experience. Nobody's taking pictures, as if they were finally relieved.

Loznitsa: They're very happy that is finished. I don't know, it's a strange feeling. Once I missed a very good shot because all of our cards were full. Something like four, five hundred people were exiting the gate in a very odd mood. They seemed very energetic, as if happy, like someone who left inside a heavy luggage and felt lighter. It surprised me. So I decided to include that moment and I re-shot the scene with visitors leaving the gate in groups. It happened again, so I think it must be a common feeling. 'Happy' is not the right word though, let's say 'not sad.'


Miranda Scherffig: Do you really think people felt the burden and intensity of the experience?

Loznitsa: I don't know. I spoke with one of the guides who leads the visits. He told me that he and his other colleagues are always surprised to experience that mood in the visitors but it's a recurring thing. I'm not a psychologist, yet it is an interesting point to investigate. This place is very tricky and paradoxical to explore for me—it makes me think that all the problems that occurred during that period were caused by Europe's civilization. I wonder how it was possible, how this kind of extermination with its factory-driven structure could have happened, and I see a direct connection between capitalism and national socialism, which eventually produced concentration camps. There's also a correlation between these camps and industrialization. And now this is a touristic industry, after seventy years. I think we still didn't find the solution about what it was and what to do with it. How can we accept it or deal with it? I believe European culture is still at the same point. When you go there you realize how people didn't accept it, in the sense that they didn't find a way to be in that situation, in that place. A place which proposes to you the 'museum of extermination,' where you can gain insight on how extermination was carried out. If you'd like to study how best to make a concentration camp, a visit to one of these places is the best way to go.

Miranda Scherffig: One of the guides was unsure whether a certain crematorium was used or not. That scene looks almost like an acted monologue on the doubts we may have about history. Perhaps people are used to processing time and history more through information rather than space.

Loznitsa: I disagree, because otherwise it becomes like Disneyland. I don't see a reason for building and reconstructing barracks. In Dachau there were barracks with totally new windows. Same in Buchenwald, all original barracks were deconstructed and sent to the Soviet Union. They used them in the gulags in Siberia! [In Sachsenhausen] the barracks are also a reconstruction. It was strange to see the camp's staff repairing buildings. It's not in the film but I did catch a lot of these tricky moments. Eventually I decided not to show them because otherwise it would have been something different. Not a reflection upon the subject.

Miranda Scherffig: Several viewers noticed that tourists walked around with 'Cool Story Bro' and Jurassic Park t-shirts. 

Loznitsa: Nobody thinks about it. It means they don't understand where they are. People do not think, this is the main problem. If only they'd asked themselves, 'Hm, Sachsenhausen, OK—what does it mean?'

Miranda Scherffig: Perhaps this happened because visitors felt on 'vacation mode.'

Loznitsa: No, no. A Russian philosopher once defined what an idiot is: just a normal person, who doesn't think.


Miranda Scherffig: Could your film become a tool for understanding?

Loznitsa: I don't know. I didn't see film as a tool. Otherwise we have to go back to the question, 'What is the reason to make a film?' There is no reason to make any film. I made Austerlitz because I was very touched by the topic. When I was there [the first time], I was surprised and didn't know how to be myself in that place—it was as if I didn't know whether I was allowed to be there ethically. I wondered whether it was a place to observe from a moral perspective: I asked myself, 'Why not?' but not 'Why?' However, still today, I don't know. I'm always between these two questions. I decided, 'Let's make a film and look at what people do, what their faces reflect to me, to us.' When I went to Sachsenhausen in the summer I was completely shocked.

Miranda Scherffig: What happened?

Loznitsa: The most shocking place is the gate, where everyone takes pictures. That sentence inscribed on the entrance is a lie. A lie. Do you want to reproduce yourself within a lie? 'Arbeit macht frei' is quoted by many, and thousands died for it, but it's a lie, and is being replicated with selfies, through a person's own image. What does it mean? This is my question to the people who probably will see the film. It's an invitation to think about that with me. This is why I made this film. But there are no reasons to make a film. A friend of mine, Cristi Puiu—we are very close and always have very long discussions, overnight, about cinema and philosophy—told me that if somebody asks why he makes a film, he takes it as an act of aggression, because for him is like asking, 'Why do you exist?' I completely agree with him. This is part of my existence.