115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Austerlitz: Tourism of the Past on Film

Andrea Schmidt, Willamette University

In this paper, I argue that Austerlitz not only causes one to re-examine tourism at sites of trauma, memory, and mourning, but also calls attention to a form of “Holocaust tourism” represented in historical films themselves. The viewer desires access to the experience of the past, but one that can never be fully represented or contextualized. 

Proposal: 

In 2014, an American teenager posted a picture of herself in front of the Auschwitz concentration camp with the following tweet: “Selfie in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.” The controversial photo entered into an international debate on the use of the selfie and social media at sites of mourning. The New Yorker even identified a strain of allegedly satirical Holocaust selfie Facebook pages, such as the now defunct “With My Besties in Auschwitz.” Three years after the controversy seems to have subdued itself, filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa documents the act of taking a selfie at a concentration camp in Austerlitz (2016). Its title an allusion to the W.G. Sebald novel, the film documents so-called “Holocaust tourism.” A series of still shots of roughly 8-10 minutes in length, the filmmaker observes tourists as they visit the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps in Germany. Looking much like they were entering a theme park, tourists wander the camps wearing profanity-laced T-shirts and finishing food from the cafeteria. For the finale, the viewer observes as visitors attempt to take a selfie with the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the very end of the tour. In the desire to document everyday life, Austerlitz examines whether the visitor (or even the viewers of the film themselves) can engage with sites of memory.

 

This paper will address the following questions: How does the aesthetic of the film itself draw reference to Holocaust documentary films, such as Night and Fog (1956), but also more Hollywoodized narrative films, such as Schindler’s List (1993). For example, Night and Fog relied on still photos and the use of black and white photography. However, could the direction also be making reference to Spielberg’s film, which, for some critics, exploited the historical events for a Hollywood hero narrative? Moreover, does this documentary immersion tactic make allusion to the point-of-view “historical experience” of films, such as Son of Saul (2015), which was criticized for some its “video-game” like approach to the historical film. How does Austerlitz then engage with a larger discussion of tourism of sites of memory and mourning? In this paper, I argue that Austerlitz not only causes one to re-examine tourism at sites of trauma, memory, and mourning, but also calls attention to a form of “Holocaust tourism” represented in historical films themselves. The viewer desires access to the experience of the past, but one that can never be fully represented or contextualized. 

Topic Area: