There is a quote from Austrian auteur Michel Haneke that I tend to revisit, whenever conversations on Holocaust-related content slowly leap into the forefront of contemporary media. In a roundtable discussion for The Hollywood Reporter from a few years ago, Haneke stated:
Responsibility entails enabling your audience to remain independent and free of manipulation. The question is how seriously do I take my viewer, and to what extent do I provide him with the opportunity of creating his own opinion, confronting the historical figure on their own? Anything that treats such a subject as entertainment is for me unspeakable.
Haneke is undeniably reasonable in his sentiments and his concerns of the danger of drawing suspense from human trauma. If we look at some of the more notable World War II centric films, there’s a recurring theme of ethical questioning and exploitation throughout the majority of popular Hollywood productions. Although, there has been some recent attempts at striping the cinematic form out of films that portray the Holocaust. The Academy Award Winning Son of Saul is a film that takes an objective, relentless, and non-theatrical approach at the routine and emotional turmoil of a Sonderkommando. Occasionally, László does cross over questionable territory in the film’s developing character motivations, but for the most part Son of Saul never treats its subject matter as mere entertainment — through a consistently passive voice and point of view.
The same can be said about the rise of exploitative nonfiction and documentary-hybrid material. More often than not, true crime documentaries create a false mirror of reality against a hyper-stylised backdrop. Just as Haneke stated, drawing suspense out of a tragedy is unspeakable and dangerous. The only truly ethical manner to detail these events is through an objective perspective. Director Christophe Cognet — a filmmaker who previously documented the production of art work produced in concentration camps — has returned with his sophomore non-fiction feature entitled From Where They Stood. Taking notes from Haneke’s timeless comments on the rise of fetishistic and exploitative media, the french director delivers a contemplative and objective film on the numerous archived photographs taken inside the walls of the now decimated concentration camps.
A film stripped from any formation of traditional style, drama, or flare — From Where They Stood prominently serves as an intimate reflection on the legacy of the concentration camps. It’s also a film that comments on the dangerous effects of fascism that dawned upon the genocidal barracks. One could even state that Cognet’s project isn’t even a film, but a record that immortalises the 21st century perspective and executive research on the behalf of dedicated archivists, historians, and artists. There’s no room for bullshit or any form of theatrics for that matter. What is settled, what is stated, and what is visually presented is a document of resistance riddled with clandestine photographs and evidence.
The true danger of From Where They Stood is less of a critique on the film’s quality as a whole, but more a concern related to the future of its exhibition rollout. By cultural connotation, the premise of screening this film in a theatre, implies a packed crowd with preconceived notions of expected entertainment. This exhibition practice on its own is frankly inappropriate. This concern, more prominently evident by the upcoming Berlinale Bow, raises a few questions on the appropriateness of Cognet’s choice to present this material in a cinematic form. Could have an installation worked just as effectively? I’m personally unsure. But if anything, if Cognet wanted to create a real difference with the material presented in his film, the most preferable option is to screen From Where They Stood in a conversation-based exhibition setting.
Museums, libraries, Remembrance Day ceremonies, or even at the camps themselves. To keep the honourable work and dedication to the project intact, I hope that Cognet realises that cinema can be a form of reclamation and retaliation. Just in how the SS officers created a Kino Barrack at the camps as an exhibition space for dangerous Nazi propaganda — the most respectful and honourable manner to screen From Where They Stood and the film’s document of the brave photographers who risked everything to document the Shoah, is by exhibiting the film from where they once stood.
Dir: Christophe Cognet
Runtime: 110 minutes
From Where They Stood premiered at this year’s 71st Berlinale as part of the Forum program. The film is currently seeking international distribution, with MK2 currently handling the world sales.