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Selfies at Dachau: New film reveals embarrassing reality of remembrance

Is it ok to take a selfie at a concentration camp? The new documentary, "Austerlitz," shows how casually tourists deal with Holocaust memorials. Their actions speak for themselves.

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Watch the "Austerlitz" trailer

It's a hot summer's day. The memorial to the former Dachau concentration camp, located near Munich, is pictured on the screen. The Nazis built the camp in 1933 and prisoners from all over Europe were murdered there over the years during the Nazi regime.

Filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa has filmed people wearing shorts, t-shirts, short skirts, sandals - dressed as if they were about to board a cruise ship. Nearly all of them are holding up their phones to take pictures. Only a few have brought actual cameras along.

Selfie sticks are adjusted at the entrance to the memorial, where the iron gate reads, "Arbeit macht frei" (Work makes you free). Even here, visitors check in on Facebook and post their selfies to Instagram.

Mass tourism at places of tragedy

The Ukrainian documentary filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa has made a film about mass tourism at a place where quite reflection is perhaps most appropriate. "Austerlitz" simply observes without commenting. It is particularly moving as the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated on January 27.

Film still Austerlitz (déjà-vu film)

Are they going to the beach or to a Holocaust memorial?

The tourism industry has discovered Dachau and other former concentration camps and historical sites as potential event destinations. Loznitsa says that surprised him. Curious tourists now come from all over the world to see what's left of the death camp. Loznitsa filmed his documentary at six memorial sites, but did not go to the most famous one, Auschwitz. The film, however, only shows scenes from the Dachau and Sachsenhausen death camps.

Who visits the former concentration camps during the summer? It varies, Loznitsa told DW, adding that he met very few groups from Eastern Europe:

"There are more travel groups from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or China and Japan. And also from Spain and Italy, Argentina and Brazil. That was interesting to see."

Intentionally keeping his documentary sparse and puristic, Loznitsa did not interact with the people he observed. No one tried to strike up a conversation with him either, he says with a chuckle.

"When we film at a place like that, then I don't hide the camera. You just have to follow certain rules and create a certain kind of energy to make it work," he explains.

Film depicts the stark reality

As a documentary filmmaker, Loznitsa is at the top of his league. His films are shown at international festivals in cities like Venice, Rio, Mumbai, Toronto and Berlin. He recently won a prize at the documentary film festival in Leipzig.

"Austerlitz" is a 93-minute work with only 30 cuts. Each scene lasts for minutes on end as phone-waving visitors meander through the former prisoners' barracks. Selfies in front of the ovens in the crematorium seem to be particularly popular.

Loznitsa spent weeks alone at his locations, just observing, before he first brought his camera. At all of the memorials, he noticed that the tourists' casual behavior had nothing to do with their nationality or age.

"That surprised me," he says. "This peculiar behavior is demonstrated by all people who come as tourists. Only those who maybe lived through World War II act differently."

Film still Austerlitz (déjà-vu film)

Filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa reflects on why people visit Holocaust sites

As the director, Sergei Loznitsa's only commentary on the situation comes through his camera lens and - most importantly for him - the sound. The tourists chat cheerily with each other as audio guides lead them through the "highlights" of the memorial.

"It's a very deep experience for the viewer," he says. "With this sound, you can create tragic moments and completely change the meaning of the film.

An opportunity to tell untold stories

Sergei Loznitsa was born in 1964 in Baranovichi - in what was then the Soviet Union and is now Belarus. He grew up in Kyiv, Ukraine, where he completed a degree in math in 1987. He had a particular interest in cybernetics and artificial intelligence, and his films tend to feature this aspect of his biography, often taking on the appearance of experiments.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 Loznitsa was in his late 20s. He applied to study at the state-run film school in Moscow and got accepted.

"I'd hoped that the political developments would allow me to finally tell the stories that had been suppressed and forbidden for decades," he says. "I just noticed right away that I'd found my place at the film school where I studied with Sergei Eisenstein. Cinema gave me the opportunity to tell my stories."

Before Auschwitz: the Babi Yar massacre

His films, particularly his documentary films, are very formalistically structured. Each detail of a scene, which can last for minutes, tells the story behind the aesthetic images. The director sees everything, and everything has significance in his scenes.

Sergei Loznitsa (déjà-vu film)

Sergei Loznitsa was a mathematician before becoming a filmmaker

Loznitsa pays close attention to symmetry in "Austerlitz." "Silence takes over 16 minutes into the film and returns 16 minutes before the end," he explains. His film is itself a memorial about the inability to grieve and remember appropriately.

Currently, Loznitsa is working on a major feature film about the Babi Yar massacre in September 1941, one of the worst war crimes committed by the Nazis. Over 33,000 Jews were murdered by Nazi troops at a ravine near Kyiv. For Loznitsa, "Austerlitz" served to prepare him for the even bigger Babi Yar project.

For people today, Auschwitz has become synonymous with the Nazi genocide. The day of its liberation - January 27, 1945 - has been named Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Babi Yar massacre occurred half a year prior to the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, where Nazi leaders finalized their extermination strategy.

Babi Yar is less well known than Auschwitz, but Sergei Loznitsa hopes to keep its memory alive for future generations. 

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