Sergei Loznitsa (Austerlitz) – Interview
I’m afraid that we now repeat everything that happened in the 1930s but with people who are even less educated.
An in-depth interview with Sergei Loznitsa on his latest documentary Austerlitz, the lost memories, our new historical challenges, the crowd psychology in an industrialized society, modern propaganda and the challenges of the future that actually follow the footsteps of our troubled past.
There is always a feeling of lost connection with history and past and in Austerlitz we watch Germans urging create a common past and unfortunately, they need to go back to their Nazi period. A period that they don’t want to remember or to forget. Is there any industry of mass produced memories?
Sergei Loznitsa: Certainly the film is not only focused on the Germans but on International tourists and how they create new memorial context through their visits to the concentration camps. Every filmmaker must be aware of this context, because in the very moment of recording something you create archive. Everything that has been shot instantly turns into archival footage. That means that we all make archive footage and create new memories – being it documentary of fictional material.
We can watch that even in your fiction films that you are dealing with archive recreated memories. Is it more enjoyable to go all through that process? I remember Blokada (2005) or The Event (2015) that you recreated documentaries out of archives. What drives you to form your own personal story?
You know, I’ve lived a part of my life in a country with “unpredictable past” and still now Russia is rather unpredictable. They always rewrite history. As the political situation changes, history changes with it and adapts to the needs of the current regime. In contemporary Russia Stalin is once again becoming a great national hero.
You may hear the Minister of Education claiming that “bad things happened under Stalin but we shouldn’t dwell on them, as such memories are of no benefit for us now, for creating our new nation. This is the ideology they’re trying to create. This is also why I feel it is crucial to re-visit this period of Russian history and to propose to the spectator a chance to reflect on the events, which remain hidden or misinterpreted.
Do you need to create memories so not to forget?
Unfortunately we can’t forget. It is impossible not to remember what happened in the Soviet era. But now they’re trying to recreate this Soviet illusion. What I really want is to remember not only some particular cases or events but I want to find what kind of forces created them, why people participated in them, what kind of undercurrents existed, what was happening in this country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union nobody talks about that. As if nothing has ever happened… There is still no possibility of an open public discussion on the Stalin era.
Do you feel that everyone stopped talking about history?
No, they keep on talking about history but nothing really happens after that. If we are still discussing if Stalin was a good manager of the country or not, it means that somebody didn’t do his job right. I mean historians, filmmakers, writers and politicians. There are so many crimes of the past and we didn’t have a trial for all these. We still need our own Nuremberg trials. KGB and secret services tortured and killed millions of innocent people but these institutions have never been brought to trial either… That is why we have what we have now, and history keeps repeating itself.
Do you fear that no one learns from the past?
It’s not a fear. It’s a reality!
Can we say then that the past comes back in a different format now?
No! It is still the same format as before! There’s hardly any difference between now and then. For instance, in a recent political scandal, a government minister was found guilty of corruption. He has been part and parcel of the current ruling elite for a number of years. In this system, one cannot do anything without the approval of one’s superior and one’s bosses. So, it is reasonable to assume that the minister broke some conventions, some unwritten laws of the “gang” and he had to be taken down. It is just as simple, as it used to be.
Are we going back to the era when Stalin was “erasing” his friends?
Yes, we are going back to the 30s when all Stalin friends were sent to Siberia or to another “better world”. Nothing has changed…
Returning to Austerlitz. Since the documentary is set different Nazi concentration camps, I felt that this is also a notice towards Europe and the fear of the rise of a New Far Right. Is there any solution to this problem?
To answer that we should ask ourselves how can we be protected from that. Or we should question ourselves why this happens. It is a logical result of the development of the industrialized society. Nazis started the industrialization of people, using them as workers and then as staff, and as raw material, their skins, their bodies… I perceive these camps as factories. I made a similar film 12 years ago, Fabrika (2004), and it is deals with the subject of factory “labour”, as a monotonous and ungratifying experience. It is a metaphor on how heavy industrial labour turns people into dust. Regarding the camp tourism… They also call this kind of tourism “Holocaust Tourism” but in fact is more than that. Holocaust refers only to Jews but in these camps, there were people of any religion or social background.
Are we still living in the exact same industrial society? Haven’t we learned from our mistakes?
Of course we do. Every time we pass a security check at an airport, for example, we are reminded of this. You have to stay in a queue, follow the security routine, give yourself up for a body search and for a short moment become a suspect, perhaps even a potential terrorist. Nobody cares about your privacy. You are just an object passing through a line. Pure factorization. Now we should ask why this kind of “facility” was organized back then. Because some nation believed that is superior to the others and closer to God. They decided to “teach us” how to become better. The main slogan in these camps was We Can Transform You. Unfortunately, we haven’t learnt much, as this idea still exists today in some countries.
Can we still be protected though?
A factor that might protect us, is fear, and the fear is now slowly disappearing. When memory disappears then there is nothing to be afraid of. This is what I was preoccupied with when I was making this film. “Only people that have no hope can survive” – as one of the characters in my film puts it.
That could be the reason on why hope has been an industrial/political product?
Everybody works on hope. Nobody says choose me, everything would be difficult and hard, but trust me. They need to sell hope.
This means that politics replaced religion in selling hope.
You can visit a church and you can see the same amount of people there as the audience of documentary films! There are so few so we can be on the same competition with the church! Religion is gone and it has been replaced by TV. Even if it’s a public TV the government makes it simple, more commercial and something that “people request”. Of course, no one will request to be educated. The majority will ask for something easy, fun and not tiring.
I’m afraid that people slowly will be infantilized so they won’t be ready to get any responsibility. And if we keep the same “democratic” elections then it is easy for some idiot to become a president. If you are wondering how this is possible, you should read Gustave Le Bon’s Psychology of Crowds.
This is more of a horror book now that becomes today’s reality.
Exactly, everyone is running around asking how such things could have happened. The answer is that you did it. It is that simple. The only way to survive is to educate people.
Now we are dealing with problems that are presented to us as There Is No Alternative and the lack of education is apparent when things go beyond the expectations. For example, during Maidan you could see that no one knew on how to handle that situation even the organizers. Your films never reach to a conclusion but I always get that philosophical “what happens next” feeling after watching them. Do you actually know what might happen?
I believe I know but I don’t want to express it in my films. I keep it for myself as I don’t want to become a Cassandra. I just feel that nothing good will happen unfortunately. I’m afraid that we now repeat everything that happened in the 1930s but with the people who are even less educated.
There are some arguments that in order to end the current financial crisis we need a new World War. Since we are reliving the 30s, are we close to that?
Not really. The world is too small and now everyone has planes to fight. Also, the movements that might seem like those of the 30s now they don’t have any ideology, so they have no fanatics. You cannot fool people with ideology anymore but propaganda works on a different level today. We are all both spectators and participants of this big show and when we are watching something we are feeling a strong intervention into our lives. The modern propaganda requires that you as a spectator should somehow form your own opinion. In the past, propaganda proposed an official opinion. Now you participate in that action and you have to go through some proposed steps to reach to a solution. In the end, you will fight for this “free” solution. This is the way to manipulate people and force them to act. Doing nothing is also an action.
Could also be the reason on why people are still visiting the camps? To create their own reality of new memories?
They are trying to circulate in that fake – I don’t like this word, because it means something different – reality. Actually, we should recreate the old meaning of the word reality. It used to express concrete things like a book, a table but now we keep on saying that ideas are reality. No, they are irreality! This is how you manipulate people, there are no criteria on what’s real. You can discuss an idea but it is not reality. Even products that once could be tested and certified now are all substitutes or ersatz of what we used to know, like food.
Is it an already proposed image of what something should feel and taste that we are forced to recreate through an ersatz?
I fear that we are moving towards that direction. I’m waiting for the time when we will be forced to believe that food could be delivered to you in a form of a perfume! A smell that could give you the satisfaction that you have already eaten your meal. Like a grotesque scene of a Buñuel film. I admire countries like Greece for example, where people are still capable of distinguishing tastes of things. When I first came from Ukraine to Germany I struggled to find real tomatoes, for example. They looked like real tomatoes, but they did not have any taste.
But this tomato still seems so perfect and even better than the real one!
And this is propaganda! They are using our ability to perceive the world through images and not using other senses. When the image is strong, then it is possible to manipulate the people. The image triggers our brain, and the brain creates a model of our future actions. When you watch a film, you repeat all these actions inside your brain so you participate in them together with the actor.
This still feels like a manipulation though.
Everyone uses this manipulative technique but I believe that art is more honest. Art creates a special language and through that language it recreates meanings of the things you can see in the world. News or bad documentaries always propose to just observe. For me this doesn’t work. When you observe a film, you have to follow some conventional rules and learn how to interpret the language of the film. When you don’t know the language which it is used and you receive just the image, then this is extremely dangerous. Especially when the directors are educated and the viewers are not. You need to know how to read the image to protect yourself.
Can we talk about illiterate people of the image?
Not only image. Now even the text has no power. How many books were censored in Europe for example in the past years? Almost none because the books cannot influence anyone anymore and because the people who read them are an extreme minority. They are less than a drop in this big ocean. But News? These are always important! Unfortunately, we still don’t understand how the image works us.
Since you are always dealing with the power of image, are we expecting something new from you?
I’m now preparing a new film. It is currently in post-production and it should be ready next year.