Austerlitz – Sergei Loznitsa (2016)

I wasn’t prepared for this film being a slow film. Of course, I expected Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz to be slower than the average, but I didn’t expect the film to fall into my category of Slow Cinema. It does, however, and it’s a film that poses so many questions; questions about how we remember, how we deal with the past ethically, and whether we are still acting ethically in the ways in which we remember the persecution and attempt at total extinction of the Jews in Europe.

Austerlitz is set in the grounds of two concentration camps. If you hadn’t read about it before, you would notice this only in the third scene of the film. Loznitsa doesn’t make it obvious from the first frame where we are. Instead, we see people looking at something we do not see. Loznitsa is careful not to show us what they see. We do not get point-of-view shots. It is not that kind of film. What is important in Austerlitz is the study of people visiting former concentration camps that have been turned into museums. The film is not about the extermination of Jews. It is not about showing the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. On the contrary, Austerlitz is about how we today, in the 21st century, decades after the end of the war, deal with this part of our history.

Loznitsa uses a static camera throughout. A flow of people walks past, looking around, taking pictures. Yes, what the film is about is looking. It is about seeing. It is about what the French would call the éthique du regard, the ethics of looking, of watching, of internalising memory. The director stands back from what’s happening in front of the camera. It seems as though he simply put the camera somewhere and the rest unfolded by itself. And as such, he couldn’t have created a more interesting portrait of how modern society deals with a part of memory that it so important to keep. Two people that stood out for me right at the beginning where this young man wearing a t-shit saying “Cool Story Bro”. I’m not sure there could have been a more tasteless shirt for an occasion like this. Then there is a young woman who entertains a group of people by putting a bottle of water on her head while a guide is explaining the uses of prisons in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Loznitsa’s film shows the gulf between the second and third post-war generation. In several instances, his camera records an indifference of the latter. But it’s not just them, though. People of all generations take selfies in front of one of many infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gates. People with selfie sticks are everywhere. They do not look at the remnants of the past; they merely record it with their phones. The culture of smartphones has changed the way we deal with the past. We take a picture of everything, regardless of what the photograph shows. People take photos first before they help other who’ve been in an accident just because.

I would say that we’re living in a click-culture, which is at odds with memory. Photographs do not help us remember. They help memory to fade. What is important is that we see things with our own eyes, only then can we feel what it means to be at a certain place. If anything, concentration camps (I’ve been to one) are about the experience of being at a place haunted with death. What Loznitsa shows is that, today, it seems to be about going there, taking selfies, and posting them on social media. Is that how we remember today? Is this how we can stop the past repeating itself?

In all of its long takes, Austerlitz shows that sites of memory are no longer used only to remember. The sites are consumed. They have become part of our devastating consumer culture, which makes it so difficult to make people to experience something for longer than just a few seconds. It often appears as though the visitors cannot grasp what happened at the time, yet the reason is very simple: time. Loznitsa takes the time to observe people not taking their time to observe. They take a photo and continue their way.

At the same time, there is something ethically questionable about the film itself. Several shots are beautifully framed, such as the one around half hour into the film. We see a group of people huddled into a small room, most of them trying to take pictures like paparazzis. The shot is beautiful. It’s simple, a white wall and an open door. Nothing but that. How do you frame death, or the present absence, in concentration camps? Should a director make his shots aesthetically pleasing in such a context while at the same time pointing to the malady of contemporary society to simply take nice pictures at a place of death? To pose at places of death? It’s something that I haven’t come across yet in reviews of the film, and it might be worth looking at the film from this angle, i.e. from the possible implication of the director in what his film seems to criticise.

Between Suspense and Time Terror

As a result of the paper I gave at the University of Stirling at the beginning of the month, I looked more into aspects of terror. In my paper I used the term “time terror” to describe the feeling Lav Diaz generates in Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012), Melancholia (2008) and Death in the Land of Encantos (2007). One question that came up in the Q&A after my presentation was for whom Diaz created this “time terror”. I originally only thought of the characters, who are always found in situations of anxiety, paranoia, fear, hopelessness, and uncertainty.

But then there is this odd feeling I get when I watch those films, and I concluded that the “time terror” applies to both film character and film spectator. It was in a different context, namely the use of endless duration in scenes of characters walking along roads, that Diaz one said he aimed at making the viewer feel time. I don’t think this is the only circumstance where this feeling of time comes into play. I see his films as trying to convey the sensation of what life is like for the characters.

In any case, I’m only playing around with thoughts, so I have by no way an answer to another really interesting (and helpful) question: what do I see as the difference between suspense and time terror? This is a very good point, and there is somewhat an agreement that Lav Diaz does not create suspense as such. It is something else, but what exactly is it?

I found a book I thought could be interesting, called The Aesthetics of Terror. It had very little to do with what I actually wanted. However, there was one argument in the book that made me think: terror comes quick, often without expectations. It appears as quick as it disappears. From that point of view, my idea of terror in Diaz’s films does not seem to fit. Not if we take the modern post-9/11 sense of terror.

My thought about terror stems from my reading on sociological and psychological aspects in concentration camps, where the prisoners’ time-consciousness was deliberately shattered so as to remove frameworks they could hold on to. The shattered time-consciousness led to disorientation. As I detailed in my paper, time in the camps was either experientially stretched by endless roll calls, or accelerated by sudden beatings. There was thus a persistent switch between slowness and speed. This was called terror, or totalitarianism, but because all writers came back to the same aspects of time, I termed it time terror, which suited my research, and makes this specific form of terror much clearer.

Now, you do find the same aspects in Diaz’s films. There is an endless duration in his films, obviously mainly evoked by extreme long-takes, but also by long periods of silence or little action. All of this together slows down the narrative and stretches time, often to an extreme. And then you have brief intermissions, for instance in Florentina, where those stretches of endless duration are interrupted by sudden violence. This is obviously not only felt by the character. It is also the viewer who is put into states of shock after periods of peace, followed by periods of sudden violence.

This all makes sense, and it only needs a few clarifications, which I’m working on in my head at the moment. But how about suspense? Hitchcock’s approach was mentioned…put the bomb under the table and have the family have dinner at it. You don’t need to see the bomb going off or anything. It’s just there. This is indeed similar to Diaz, who often prefers not to show violence, but who much rather creates sensations. So why am I speaking of ‘time terror’ and not of suspense?

I’m not entirely sure at the moment, and I’d be grateful for any thoughts on this. My own thoughts were going back to the play on time. I do see a link between terror/suspense and time. I do not necessarily agree with the above mentioned argument that terror comes quick. The actual act of violence comes quick, but terror is a much larger concept. If we face it, the (Western) world has lived in fear since 9/11. This is terror. The violent attacks that we have seen since then are only a part of it, but they are not terror in itself.

For me, time terror means endless duration first of all, often quite literally because we have no idea when something ends. I also think that terror is a long process, and it therefore goes well with Diaz’s extremely long films, in which he uses the time he has at his hands to create a sensation of terror. Suspense for me is more short-lived. We know suspense from pretty much all contemporary films; horror, thrillers, even comedies do contain suspense at times. But these scenes of suspense are short-lived. You do not live through hours of uncertainty before something may or may not happen. It is rare that you feel suspense for an entire two hour long film. Horror films may be a different thing to look at here. I’m not sure whether duration alone is enough to explain terror (as opposed to suspense). I think I could make a case for it, but I’m happy to hear any feedback on this issue that could help me explain my time terror theory in clearer terms.