Most visual documentation of the Nazi concentration camps comes from the Allied soldiers who liberated the camps toward the end of World War II. The images they captured were grotesque and powerful, still reverberating in the global consciousness nearly 100 years later. As harrowing as they are, though, they are still secondhand witness documentation, rather than firsthand experiences. Much lesser-known are the photographs taken by prisoners of the camps. A rare phenomenon for obvious reasons, such evidence nonetheless exists. A select few of these images, as well as their creators and the circumstances in which they were made, are the subjects of the new documentary From Where They Stood.
The film is structured around director Christophe Cognet as a sort of anonymous journeyman, a stand-in for the audience visiting the sites of camps like Dachau and Auschwitz, where historians explain the photographs and their contexts to him. In the haunting opening, Cognet and one of these guides rummage through the sodden soil on the outskirts of one camp, at the site of a mass grave. The guide tells us that each time it rains, bone fragments of cremated victims rise to the surface. We see how the earth is richly flecked with white. It sets the tone perfectly for the movie and its investigation into these images, and the overlap of the past and present.
Within this conceit, such overlaps are sometimes literal. Cognet, his crew, and the experts do their best to find the precise location depicted in each photo and then methodically reason just where the photographer was standing in each case. They hold up semitransparent prints of the pictures and overlay them right over those locations many decades later, helping the viewer contextualize the physical space not only of the scenes but also where the photographers were within them since the camera is positioned close to the same spots where the original cameras were. It creates a curious kind of simultaneity, like seeing the past manifesting as a ghost before your very eyes. Not just a historical investigation, each of these sequences is an uncanny meld of reenactment, recreation, and live editing. It’s one of the more potent visual effects I’ve seen in a recent film, and all done in-camera.
Each of these photographers captured these images at tremendous personal risk, with cameras acquired through complex subterfuge or sheer luck. Not all of them survived the camps. Lacking means to develop the film, they had no idea whether they had managed to make any legible pictures at all. They photographed everything from quiet moments to work details to, rarely, the Nazi death machine in action. One horrifying photo was taken of women being herded toward an Auschwitz gas chamber, and was taken by a sonderkommando worker from within that chamber. The shot is almost entirely out of focus, and the women are unrecognizably blurred. This is the closest thing we have to direct documentation of the gas chambers in action. Another series of pictures features the photographer and some of his friends simply posing as they would for any normal photo — a small act of defiance by asserting one’s humanity through mundane ritual. Tracing these moments both small and monstrous, From Where They Stood makes a game attempt to grapple with the full weight of history that bears down on the most deceptively serene vistas.
From Where They Stood opens in select theaters July 15 and will be available on VOD platforms September 13.