In one of the hardest-to-watch sequences of “From Where They Stood” (it’s also one of the hardest to look away from), we see four photographs taken inside the Buchenwald concentration camp by Alberto Errera, a Jewish prisoner from Greece who was a member of the Sonderkommando – the inmates who were allowed to live, at least for a time, because they agreed to be part of the most gruesome work. There are no known photographs of what happened inside the gas chambers. But Errera approached it by taking several clandestine photos of the gas chambers, giving us a window into what happened before and after.
One of his images shows a group of female prisoners, several of them naked, in a wooded setting; they think they’re going to take a shower, that’s the lie they told the prisoners to get them into the gas chambers. There are also two photographs from the Sonderkommando—the only two existing—showing several of them walking among a sea of corpses, which they had just dragged from the gas chambers. The weirdest thing about the photo is that smoke is rising all around them. The crematorium was not working that day, and their job was to set fire to the corpses in the open air.
As we watch and listen, a small team of European Holocaust historians comment on these photographs, trying to pinpoint, as much as possible, what is going on there. Why does the Sonderkommando just look like men at work? Because they have done it many times. Are any of the naked women holding a newborn baby? The photograph is too grainy for us to make out, but it looks terrifyingly like it might be.
A decade after the end of World War II, French director Alain Resnais made “Night and Fog” (1956), a 32-minute documentary about what happened in the Nazi death camps, and for many of us, it remains the definitive record of this profound horror. Resnais contrasted black and white footage shot in the camps – to this day they remain the most graphic images of these events most of us have ever seen – with scenes shot in color, often in the same locations. , 10 years later, to create a dialectical picture of the past rooted in the present.
In “From Where They Stood”, the director, Christophe Cognet, employs a similar strategy, although where Resnais took half an hour of screen time to etch the Holocaust into our souls, this film, with its spiraling speech flyers (the commentators chew on what happens in each photograph in a way that is often revealing but, on occasion, simply very French), takes two hours to accomplish something less basic.
Yet the film, in its somewhat academic way, is a meditation that elevates our perception. Nazi-era photographic archives sometimes gave the impression that they literally existed in black and white. Here, seeing the camps today in soft autumn colours, bathed in the sounds of the wind and the chirping of birds, we are painfully aware that this is, in fact, what it was – not a monochromatic hell but a perverted view of nature. Cognet and his team have created negative magnified transparencies of many photographs on glass, and as they place them against identical locations, we feel eerily transported. In a series of particularly disturbing photographs, taken by Joanna Szydlowska in 1944, several female prisoners show their wounds. They were victims of Nazi “medical experiments” (one had her legs shortened), and they seem to stare at us through time.
The ultimate horror of what happened in the camps remains out of reach – a reality impossible for a prisoner to capture, and perhaps too unfathomable to see. And that gives these photographs a mystery unique to the 20th century. But “From Where They Stood” also captures the life inherent in the fact that these photographs exist. The prisoners who photographed them took great risks to steal and smuggle cameras, and to hide the rolls of film after they were shot. They did it as a form of resistance: a testimony to what happened in the camps, which in some cases, like in the 7 photographs taken by Wenzel Polak, amounts to an astonishing undermining of the mythology of victimization — we see shots of Polak and several compatriots, smiling poses striking with casual strength. Commentators point out that if it weren’t for the striped uniforms, you’d never guess these people were in a concentration camp. They seem not to belong the. Which begs the question: Why would we look at someone and think otherwise?
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