On the same day that President Trump initiated a travel ban affecting seven Muslim-majority countries in the name of an unending war on terror, the White House released a prepared statement in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. One thing was glaringly missing from it: any mention of the Jewish people.
This certainly says something damning about Trump specifically and his administration more broadly. But his comments and the way they were framed also speaks to more deeply rooted symptoms of how we process historical tragedy. It’s been more than 70 years since the liberation of the concentration camps, and in that short amount of time, the Holocaust has been transformed from a highly specific act of targeted genocide into a convoluted narrative of light in the face of darkness, of strength and perseverance. The Holocaust exists today for many as an outline, a cursory set of keywords and emotional responses. All of its specificity, including who the true victims were, has been removed. Conscious or not, this is an act of erasure.
It is this feeling that is evoked by Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary Austerlitz, which makes its United States premiere at the Museum of Modern Art on February 19. The film observes tourists moving through the Dachau and Sachsenhausen camps — which see 700,000 and 250,000 visitors a year, respectively — and the ways they engage with these traumatic spaces. The film is relatively silent — there is no added commentary, no titles, no extra sound — capturing an emotional detachment that is hard to shake, all the more so because of its prevalence.
Often, people don’t actually engage at all. They seem voyeuristically eager to visit the sites of atrocities but unable or unwilling to treat these spaces with anything resembling reverence or even respect. Toward the beginning of Austerlitz, the camera lingers near the entrance of one of the camps, where a message on the front gate reads, “albeit macht frei,” or “work sets you free.” This message, welded onto the gates of many concentration camps, was often the first thing prisoners saw as they were led inside. (In his book Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi says of those words: “[their] memory still strikes me in my dreams.”) Loznitsa allows the camera to hold the message in its frame, almost hanging over the visitors as they enter, but nobody going in stops to contemplate their meaning. Though the gates do provide a nice spot, as we witness, for group selfies.
There is a term for this phenomenon: dark tourism. We are attracted to the places where bad things have happened, but we rarely reflect on what actually occurred therein. There is a distance we maintain in order to not feel the pain of the past, because to do so would require us to think more deeply about the present. For the tourists featured in Austerlitz, this gap is on full display. The tour guides, reading banal scripts in a flat monotone, list off numbers and figures about how many people were killed, but their language is impersonal and blank. The visitors are left to fan themselves in the midday heat, languid and bored.
Variations of this phenomenon have been explored in the past: a Tumblr dedicated to some of the more egregious examples, called “Selfies at Serious Places,” did a good job of mocking this detachment, while Dutch photographer Roger Cremers has produced a body of work dedicated to tourists at concentration camps. And let’s not forget the message Justin Bieber wrote in the guestbook of the Anne Frank House, in which the pop singer hoped that, had she still been alive, Anne Frank would have been a “Belieber.”
It’s easy to laugh at the absurdity of all this. A recurring theme in Austerlitz is the teenagers who, arriving on field trips or having been dragged by their families, wear shirts that boldly proclaim things like “Cool Story, Bro” and “Just Don’t Care.” And humor is certainly part of what Loznitsa is trying to convey with these moments. But his argument about the mistreatment of traumatic spaces is made stronger by the moments he shows of mourning, including one scene toward the end that takes place in front of the memorial sculpture by Waldemar Grzimek at Sachsenhausen, which depicts two inmates holding the limp body of a third. The intertwined figures loom over the visitors who, under the sculpture’s shadow, remain silent, deep in a moment of perceived introspection.
In Austerlitz’s final moments, we watch the same people who casually entered the camps walk out again. Some visitors appear lost in thought, while others chitchat and laugh. They are rejoining their lives and moving on to their next destinations, while the space remains the same: haunted by the past and in danger of being lost to the future.
Austerlitz will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd St., Midtown) on February 19 and 20.