Auschwitz begins with Uwe Boll addressing the camera, telling us why he has decided to make the film. He gives three main reasons : because he believes that films that dealt with the Holocaust have not properly communicated its horrors, because young people today (with special emphasis on Germans) are ignorant of what occurred and because we need to be reminded that genocides are still taking place.
The first section of the film proper involves Boll (off camera) interviewing high-school students. He asks them what they know about the Holocaust and about the Germany of the 1940s.
It is a clever device, implicating us as questioners, responders and analysers of both. What would we have done in the Germans' shoes? Laid out in front of us, too, is the primary reason and spur for the dramatisation that follows: the film is made for these young men and women who have, at best, a sketchy understanding.
However, these interviews are problematic too. One problem is that we are shown the responses of those who know as well as those who don't. Thus the film can no longer be seen as purely a direct response to the results of the interviews. The interviews, in the way that they are edited and ordered, become not only portraits of those asked but of the Director (in all senses of the word) - his point of view, his interpretation and his concerns. They are leading questions.
Although that same editing, accompanied by the approving silence of the interviewer, indicates who is giving the 'right' answers, the film cannot function fully (at least in this section) as an educative tool: we need to think "Yes, he has it right" and we cannot do that only by inferring it from the presentation of the responses. We need to know already.
Equally, in the contrast between those who know and those who do not (or worse, have false knowledge) there emerges an undercurrent of mockery, or at least head-shaking.* There is a sense too that a guilt may be being laid at the door of people who were not even born at the time.
I do not believe that we are meant to challenge or ponder too deeply upon whether this (perhaps unmeaning) inheritance is right or wrong. In fact, through the interviews' subtly probing and latently aggressive tone, one is moved from the premise and purpose towards an opposed stance : How much do they really need to know about Auschwitz, the other concentration camps and the Holocaust as a whole?
Without doubt, it is a useful film that stirs up these dilemmas. It is a fine intention to battle against complacency (bringing up modern genocides) or forgetfulness, especially in a school where we are told that there are still "Nazis". But one is always aware of a disquieting clash between intention, noble and good, and result.
Nevertheless, there are affecting and thought-provoking flashes in this section that break free from the shackles of the black and white and the prescriptive. The most notable of these is an answer given by a young woman. She talks of how Germans who helped Jews were imprisoned and therefore, under the boot of the regime, it was easier to simply 'follow the current'. To this she is asked what she would have done. "The same", she says.
* * *
There follows a 37 minute dramatisation of a day at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Stanley Kubrick once said that a successful film on the Holocaust would be "unwatchable" and Jean-Luc Godard that the ultimate Holocaust film would concentrate on the day-to-day workings of the camp - the paperwork, the administration, the challenges of finding the right furnaces and coffins and so forth. In other words communicating how 'normal' the horror had become for these human beings.
The Director himself says : "It was the biggest organised killing of humans in history and in the film we see just another ordinary day for the victims at the death camp...from the train until the oven"
Uwe Boll's film concentrates on the process of disembarking Jews from trains, categorising them, stripping them and gassing them. A business, a meat market. It is sickening to watch. We do not get to know anyone - neither Nazi or Jew - and little stands in the way of the true face of the killings. We go into the gas chambers, into the fires, into the offices where officers discuss one man's reluctance to kill children (they nominate someone else who doesn't have such qualms) and the malfunction of equipment.
It is something else. It is very very hard to watch.
However, perhaps keeping in mind the Catch 22 of the watchable unwatchable mooted by Stanley Kubrick (who himself struggled with a desire to make a film on the Holocaust), Boll may not have gone far enough.
This section of the film begins on a train carrying Jews to Auschwitz. Here Boll plays tense and tragic music. Later there are stabs of music and sound recognisable from Horror films. Granted that the conventions of horror make more sense than the strains of past sentimental odysseys, another layer of filmic 'artificiality' is not needed here. Yes, it may be part of the armoury used to make the unwatchable watchable but the music cheapens, makes the story like any other. Or, rather, makes it a story.
Likewise, in at least a couple of instances, Boll uses slow motion to drag out or draw out the desperate wailing of the people as they beat the walls of the gas chamber or when a couple of children are shot in the back of the head. This is a tacit admission that he feels that what we see is not horrific and sorrowful enough. It betrays a lack of confidence in the film 'as is' - an admission of failure. We don't need to be told how awful what we see is. It is horrible, yes, but it should not dress itself up as a horror film.
We are shown Jews nude in the gas chambers but when they are shown dead many of them are covering their private parts. This is an inappropriate (but understandable) coyness that undermines the verisimilitude of the moment.
The film needs to discard as much as it can in order to fulfil its purpose and its promise. It cannot possibly show us how it really was or make us feel the same dread and pain but it can seek to reclaim ground lost to sentimentality and poignancy in the realm of films or art in general that intends to show the horrors of the Holocaust. Within that remit, not trying to stand for true witness or even documentary, it can succeed.
There are two particularly fine scenes. One shows a Nazi guard standing bored outside the door to a gas chamber. We hear the screams and the anguish and see an eye, a cheek, sometimes a whole face through a little round window. It sets your teeth on edge, torturous and protracted. Whether outside or inside the chamber we dwell in the arena of pain as a witness. We do not dwell on the intimate and holy details of personal pain, nor intrude on the walls of the soul. We are shown the full abuse of the dignity of man without participating in it (though the implication of all may be a perfectly legitimate approach).
The second scene involves two officers discussing wives, children, the normal things people may talk about. They also discuss, in the same matter-of-fact manner, the amount of people coming on the next train or whether all the machinery is operational. All the while, far in the background, we hear a few gunshots, the rumble of a fire, or a shout.
Normality and the outrageously abnormal. Evil reduced to the clerical, to chit-chat. Auschwitz here treads well a fine line. This juxtaposition (although almost certainly historically accurate) could easily have carried an irony, a humour with it that could mollify the outrage it wants to stress. In other words, the film could inadvertently become as blithe as the guards. It does not.
These scenes remain awful, as does the final image of a dead child pushed into the furnace.
* * *
The dramatised section concludes and we return to the high-school students for more interviews, interspersed with documentary footage. The same benefits and drawbacks apply as to the first section. One question, asking why Hitler was popular (and by extension what his qualities may have been) is awkward and it cannot be properly answered by people of their generation.
By the same token, the possibility that there would be a reluctance on the part of some to speak of such things to a stranger in front of a camera must also be taken into account.
The film ends with a reprisal of the Director's mission statement, humble but self-assured.
In conclusion, I believe that Auschwitz demanded of itself to reach a point where it could barely be judged as a work of art - where its techniques were made as invisible as possible and where (the illusion of) an un-mediated relationship between the audience and history (and our future) were forged. The middle section is mostly excellent, with sequences perhaps among the most strong I have seen. It is shocking and it has an aura of the essential. The bookends of interviews are thought-provoking but raise just as many questions in terms of its form as those about the subject.
It is a shame that Boll did not go a little further and fully eradicate from mind the shame of those films that did no justice to the true and unimaginable (that should not be allowed to be unspeakable) nature of the Holocaust. It is always timely to be shaken by what is happening to people at the hands of others, then and now.
Shock, Auschwitz and Enter the Void
Is it 'exploitative' to show? Is it exploitative to dwell behind closed doors, to stare at what we'd like to take our eyes from?
A succession of films that took the Holocaust as their subject have numbed us. They have euphemised and euthanised the true horror of what occurred. They have begun the work of turning fact into fiction, war and death into a trope and a genre.
It is more exploitative, disingenuous and damaging to turn the massacre of millions into a backdrop for heroes, for comic jaunts, for beknighted individuals, for the saved few. Is it respectful to sanitise? Is it great art to make the Holocaust a context for something else? How can you be witness to something if you refuse to look it in the eye?
Genocides in the past or in the present must be shocking and must be shown, as far as possible, for what they are. There can be in certain cases an imperative to shock, as it were, one that itself risks annulling itself through overuse.
When we are shocked we feel a rush of anger, an anger that we direct at the person responsible for the shock. Why would he want to make me feel that way? Why would Uwe Boll want to make me uncomfortable? He must be a sick man to want that.
We can never imagine what it was like or is like to endure and suffer such horrors but the fact remains that we want the uncomfortable to be made comfortable and yet, if the uncomfortable is dressed up in symbols, in tears, in the solace of chosen protagonists, we are not experiencing it at all.
Manipulative? All films are. The question is : to what end?**
In Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void, another film where we are let (through the perspective of an unbound spirit) behind closed doors to see what we rarely see, we are shown an abortion and an aborted fetus (neither are real). If something that is so important, final and sobering as life and death does not shake us then their depiction does not do justice to any kind of physical or emotional truth. As in Auschwitz, Oscar's gaze (ours, given we see through his eyes) is not intrusive. It does not relish - or look for entertainment - in any way.*** Twice, seeing his sister in wretched tears, he pulls away and departs.
Where is the edification, we may say. The edification is looking at things as they are and thinking anew (a film cannot show things precisely as they are but they can create an understanding and curiosity in its audience). Intellectual and moral complacency promoted by soft-soap insincerity is far more damaging than something raw, even if meant purely to provoke or dismay, that may leave a temporary scar. Shock knocks us back and takes us out of ourselves.
*Is their lack of knowledge the shortcomings of the school system or the usual inattentiveness or disinterest of the pupils?
**And to what final effect on the audience?
*** I have not yet come across a film (a work of fiction) that I would call immoral, but that is not to say that there are not films that are distasteful, disgusting, off-putting and that appear pointless. There is also the fact that, taken together, a group of films can have the effect of normalising morally dubious thoughts and behaviour.
Auschwitz is available on DVD from Monday the 11th of July