Review: From Where They Stood
- BERLINALE 2021: Christophe Cognet immerses himself in a meticulous investigation, analysing the very rare clandestine photographs taken by deportees themselves in the death camps
In a sunny countryside landscape, the earth is dotted with white. These are bone fragments which return to the surface when it rains: they are always in the ground we walk on. Traces of the abominations that were nazi concentration camps, “these places dedicated to the negation of humanity,” have already been the subjects of many cinematic representations from different angles, with very different styles and approaches, from Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One to Claude Lanzmann’s colossal Shoah, from Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog to László Nemes’ immersive Son of Saul [+see also:
Q&A: László Nemes
interview: László Rajk
film profile] — a duty of memory that is all the more essential considering man’s unfortunate tendency to look away from his most obscure inclinations. In a smaller register, but one that is just as essential, French documentarian Christophe Cognet takes part in that same work of memory with From Where They Stood [+see also:
film profile], discovered in the Forum section of the 71st Berlinale, a meticulous and original investigation based on the very rare clandestine photographs taken by the deportees themselves (from the spring 1943 to the fall of 1944) at the risk of their lives, from within the camps.
In conversations with historians specialised in the history of the Shoah, the director uncovers the story of each of these pictures, plunging at the heart of those images with a magnifying glass and placing them back as accurately as possible in the current reality of the remains of the Dachau, Mittelbau-Dora, Buchenwald, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbrück camps. Who took those pictures, and in what circumstances? Where did the camera come from? Who’s in the frame and what does it reveal? How was the film hidden and salvaged? So many questions which are explored methodically and patiently, by offering hypotheses (we do not know the exact circumstances of these brief moments stolen from the executioners) and interpretations based on historical knowledge and on the physical reality of those locations, which allow for a wider and very realistic understanding of the space and of the existence that each picture was a part of.
Pictures taken from a window of the Dachau infirmary or showing the Buchenwald crematorium, portraits of the human guinea pigs subjected to medical experiments in Ravensbrück, and even a very blurry picture of women undressing in front of the crematorium V in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and another showing a Sonderkommando working by a pyre amongst the corpses: these visual samples are simultaneously symbols of individual resistance, and almost archeological footprints to be analysed in order to extract their essence. Particularly instructive, the film also underlines the alterations made to certain photographs, often to make them clearer and more intelligible, but also sometimes in order not to create misconceptions (prisoners sunbathing next to a crematorium were thus erased, since this state of total indifference to the death of others would of course have been totally incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t survived the camps). The director in fact never ventures near any potential polemics because that is not his goal. In analysing with meticulous precision the microcosm of each picture, Christophe Cognet pays homage from a correct and respectful distance to these men and women who risked their lives to take back control of their own image and to send this chilling and vital message of History: “this happened.”
Produced by French company L’atelier documentaire and co-produced by German company OVALmedia, From Where They Stood (which was shot by cinematographer Céline Bozon) is sold internationally by mk2 Films.
(Translated from French)
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