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“Thank god I understand that I have something to express.” An interview with Sergei Loznitsa.

Sergei Loznitsa

I’m a visiting ‘special guest’ at the Vilnius Film FestivalLoznitsa was awarded Best Director in the ‘Baltic Gaze’ Competition category at the festival’s end. or Kino Pavasaris (Cinema Spring) as it’s known here, and I’m waiting to meet director (and fellow ‘special guest’) Sergei Loznitsa. Despite yesterday evening’s stormy downpour, which still trickled into the early afternoon, the gloom has now mostly lifted and the sun is shining through the hotel café’s mostly-glass annex. Loznitsa appears, somehow slightly taller than I’d expected. He is here with his documentary film Austerlitz, which premiered last fall and consists of static black-and-white shots analyzing tourist behavior on concentration camp tours. You’d be surprised how many take selfies with the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’-gate.  His eyes glance over me discerningly as he asks where I’m from. I don’t seem to appear credible enough, or worth revealing information to. As we sit down, I can tell he’s still not convinced he’s at the right interview. As we begin, he mostly tells his ideas to the street through the window behind me, but as my questions attempt to go deeper, his steely gaze gradually redirects to puncture my own.

MLP: How did you first conceive of the idea for Austerlitz?

Sergei Loznitsa: It always starts from experience, from an impression which you have from your life, and with me it was the same. When I came for the first time to this kind of memorial in Buchenwald, I got a strong impression from what I saw. After that I decided to visit another camp in Sachsenhausen. The impression got stronger, more and more, and I decided to shoot a film. This is very simple.

Did you have an idea that you used to pitch it to receive funding beforehand, or did you just start filming?

I never pitch ideas. I don’t understand this form of… pitch with whom? What does it mean, “to pitch an idea”? For me, a documentary is a private relationship between you, the camera, and things around you. How is it possible to – even documentary films – how is it possible to pitch? Because you never know what will happen before you start to shoot. This is ridiculous in general for documentary, to predict something. I didn’t pitch the idea. Normally, what I do is just write a few sentences about the topic and also a few sentences about how I will discover that; the method, what kind of instrument I will use, and why. And these kinds of things you can already think about before. After that, I sent my description to different foundations and they supported me.

Do you remember what it was that you wrote about what you wanted to discover by making Austerlitz?

I wrote what I wanted to do, because the main question which interested me for many years and many films is the way we memorize things: what is our memory and how do we keep it? Is it possible to share it? Is it possible to let the next generation have this knowledge? It’s not knowledge, this feeling: how to be in – is it possible or not? And what happens when you completely lose memory? Because I’m from a country where there’s an unpredictable history. The next generation will write history. This country hasn’t had any possibility so far to develop and create themselves, it’s a kind of punishment that they repeat history again and again. In this kind of mechanism in human society, it’s very interesting for me to discover and to find places where I can show it. I’m an ideological person. It’s not just coincidence, because I have an idea and for me cinema is just a tool to prove or reject this idea, to discuss it. This is interesting: the things which you can see in my film happen every day and people accept that as normal. Which is ridiculous, from my point of view. It’s strange.

Do you take your final outcome as proof that we are running the risk of losing all of this memory and history in the not too distant future?

No, no, no. I don’t know how memory works in society. Do you know how it works?

No, of course not.

Do you remember something from where you are, from the U.S.? And your relatives from…?

Germany, England and France.

Where in Germany did the previous generation live?

I’m not sure.

You don’t know. It’s very easy to manipulate people who don’t remember their own history. We live in a society where the history of the family is not such important stuff, to be proud that you belong to this family and to keep it, a level of… uh… dostoinstvo… dignity! It’s not a main point in our society. This is why this society collapsed. It could not stay for long. All these questions are interesting to me. This is why I touch this and that topic, because if people do not think about them, don’t feel them, they will repeat all this horror. Like they’re doing now. Now, for example, in Europe there’s war, but… who will take care of it? Only people who live close by. For example, during the Second World War, a lot of German cities were bombed… by Americans, British, Russians, but mostly American and British planes. Like Hamburg. You know…  a big part of the city was completely destroyed with more or less hundreds of thousands of citizens: workers, old people, children… So, question: was there a reason to do that? And is it justifiable, during war, to destroy a city with its citizens? These questions are still open. Nobody said – people from modern civilization – that it’s forbidden and that we cannot do that. Now, an example: in Aleppo 2.5 million people were completely destroyed. All want to have good food, have a good life, more or less. Observe how Aleppo was completely destroyed. This is a direct connection to the question which arose during the Second World War, so 70 years before. But we live on and still don’t have answers. This is why I attach this… this is my small point, but also another point in another film and I can’t live quietly [laughing]. It touched me directly. It’s not like somebody called and said “Sergei, do you want to make a film about that?” “Okay, yes, I will see.” “Okay.” No.

Austerlitz (Sergei Loznitsa, 2016)

Do you think the behavior of the tourists in any way reflects an inability to understand so much destruction? Or does it come from something else?

I don’t know, but what I have seen, what I observed, impressed me a lot. From my education – maybe I was educated wrongly, maybe something’s wrong inside me. Okay, in this case I made a film, I made a sentence… I expressed everything I would like to express and I waited for responses and discussions. I don’t know what’s wrong, right, who knows what they mean? Who creates these rules? I don’t know, society. Okay. In this case, this memorial is a cemetery. Ce-me-ter-y. Cemetery. A special cemetery, where thousands of people were reduced to dust. When you step in this place, you touch the ash of these people. Underground. And in this place, when you come without respect, it’s wrong. When you have this behavior like that, probably there’s something wrong. It means that we don’t have rituals to visit these places. Maybe it shouldn’t be a place to educate people about how to create these extermination camps. Because you receive all the information: how it works, where the kitchen was, where they kept the teeth – which they took from the dead bodies – where the bones were, where the crematorium was, how they put the bodies in… Maybe it’s not a good idea to have an encyclopedia of extermination in the same place where the ashes of the people who were killed are resting. I don’t know. For me it’s a question.

I remember one novel by Kafka – a short story – where his hero is in prison, and the officer in the prison shows him the new apparatus for torturing people. This is where I was in those places. I just remembered immediately this Kafka novel, because for me all these situations which are absurd remind me of this absurd paradox. But we live in this paradox, so what can we do? Only notice it and make films about it. And maybe people will stay and say “Okay, okay, maybe we have to think about that.” But I’m not sure. I just do what I can.

Did you choose the static and the stillness of the film for a sense of reverence?

This is another question, how I decide to shoot that. First of all, it’s architecture. You know they created this special example of how to build these factories, extermination factories. Sachsenhausen – which is the biggest part of the film – was an example for all concentration camps. It’s the most practical and economical, from a psychological point of view, from all points of view. People thought about how to do that. How to make it. Can you imagine that you’re sitting and thinking about how to specially make, design, and everything, from a human perception point of view, an extermination camp? For a camp where they will execute and… Can you imagine that you are the person who created this crematorium? Tod [‘Dead’] and Sons, the company. Tod and Sons. Can you imagine specifically thinking about these kinds of things?

It’s hard to imagine.

Yes, for me, it’s even… The way that somebody – understanding that somebody can – think about that and make an aesthetic of extermination, because it’s an aestheticism. For me it’s ridiculous. Also from the other side it was built like old factories in industrial society. These factories at the entrance just have human bodies. At the exit, they have ash. They use energy forces, all this skin, bone, blood, hair, everything from the human body. 100% utilization. This is difficult to understand. But it was.

When thinking about composition, I was first of all thinking about architecture. First there’s the building, that’s the most important. The street, the lights – the street is most important – and people. And this is why the composition is like that. Second thing: because when I move the camera, what kind of possibilities do I have? Handheld camera: I don’t understand, for that I need to have some direction, some trajectory, which will say something. I don’t understand what kind of trajectory. Also, I need the hero. I don’t have a hero. The hero is all the people. This is why there’s no handheld camera.

Pan: if I have a pan, the same question. I need a beginning and end to the pan, and something to develop inside the pan. Otherwise, a panorama does not work. So, I don’t have these important points. If you make a panorama, all the objects which move at the same speed as your camera receive a special meaning for the spectator. It’s an agreement made with the cinematic language. For me all the objects inside the frame have the same meaning. So, I reject this idea as well. I have only the possibility of shooting with a steady camera (because I have to shoot somehow). Very logical.

It is very logical. You come from a mathematics background, is that right?

Oh yes, oh yes.

And how does this affect the way you approach cinema?

You can see that it affects… It doesn’t work the other way though, because I didn’t lose my education but I lost the opportunity to work in math or physics.

What prompted that change in your career path?

Who knows? Destiny. Something happened. But thank god I understand that I have something to express. And probably have talent. It was not so easy. It was at the time when everything changed in the Soviet Union, because the Soviet Union collapsed and the feeling of this new time, freedom… all this illusion came. Because the other way was immigration to America or Switzerland or somewhere and work as a mathematician.

You have an older film called Factory (2004). While the approach is mostly the same, the camera does move more and I was curious about why you decided to shoot that one in color.

You made a mistake. When you say, “shoot in color,” you forget that ‘black and white’ is also color. Somehow, it’s a limitation in the color. For Factory, color worked very well. It’s strange to shoot how people make steel in the factory without color. It reminds me of art books, albums with a reproduction of a Renaissance Great Master’s, in black and white. Have you seen these kinds of albums? Because they don’t have the possibility to make another reproduction. So, it was the same with Factory. But with Austerlitz I didn’t see color there. Black and white helped me to concentrate on the idea and to reduce all this color which I don’t want to include in the film, because color can destroy the composition. Like red color; it’s an active point, and I would like to have another point. I say active point, just kill it.

Can you explain the title?

It’s a title which addresses a book by a German writer who lived in Great Britain, Sebald. And… that’s all. I would also like to have this dimension and I recommend this book.

When you were still in the sciences, you were working on some Artificial Intelligence development?

Yes.

I was wondering if you had any comments about how a potential A.I. might understand human history, and especially something like World War II.

I don’t know where they are at the moment, because at that time I worked with a specific part in a huge area of investigation. I’m not sure that it’s possible to create something which will be more… how can I say it… not smart, but more intellectual than humans. I’m not sure. Because up to now, what we call Artificial Intelligence can’t make artifacts. And we don’t know how we create, how we think. We don’t know. Even how we keep our memory. We can, more or less, guess and scientists have investigated this area quite seriously now, but we still don’t know where memory exists. Do you know where your memory exists? Because before there was an idea that in the brain, every cell holds a part of the memory. And it’s not like that. Memory is like a hologram, based on interference: when you add two waves from the same thing, but you have a reflection of that thing and a clean photo. Like a hologram.

And our brain has information everywhere. Because there was an experiment where they vivisected the brains of some people and they didn’t lose knowledge or memory, but their memory became less and less clear – like a hologram, when you have three dimensions in two. It’s a way to keep information. You can keep a lot of information in a small space. So, I don’t think it can help to adapt things now. When the first private computers appeared and this multi-billionaire Bill Gates came up with this idea, the people who were deciding whether or not to give him money said no, because nobody needs it. It’s not a popular thing. This is a normal way of thinking. And it was not so long ago… 35 years. The beginning of the 80s. The 80s are not so far.

Technology is always accelerating rapidly.

This is exponential growth, and it’s very dangerous. You receive a tool, for which you have to make an adaptation for your brain, or your brain to this tool. It’s like you have a car, going 300 per hour. Not miles, but kilometer. Something like 200 miles per hour, and you have to make a decision: lots of signs are going by and you have to make a decision immediately, but your brain is not prepared, because yesterday you rode a horse. You know? This is like that. Because for people living somewhere slow, the highway is a problem – a mental problem.

This is just an example of what happens to us, because we’re receiving a lot of tools now and we don’t have the possibility to learn how to use them, how to survive with these tools. Like the connection between TV – or media – and access for everybody for this media and terror.

Without media, no terror. Because there would be no sense. It’s impossible to stop media which will retranslate all these acts. It’s impossible. This is a direct connection. Because terror exists not only because people have this kind of possibility to use this weapon, the dynamic and things like that, not because of that but because the media retranslates everything.

Do you think of this retranslation as purposeful or more accidental?

No, it’s the idea of terrorists to retranslate and to be retranslated. Why? Because they would like to spread this fear through the people and destroy society through it. Without this retranslation, there’s no meaning to be made out of any act. No meaning. Okay, a few people will die and a few people will know about it, but without any effect. You can’t say that the media are to blame, but you can say they are involved. The idea to use planes to destroy the World Trade Center was based on symbols, it’s a symbolic thing, because you have everything in one moment – like the explosion of a nuclear bomb: you have everything in one moment. You have a picture, horror, fear, you have everything. One moment. Like ten seconds. This is a symbolic thing. This happens because cameras exist and show it to everybody afterwards.

Do you think filmmakers with or without a particular ideology are more dangerous?

No, filmmakers are not dangerous. What’s dangerous are people who don’t think. This is dangerous. Normal people who don’t think. Because they can distribute this disease between each other. Filmmakers, they are like doctors. For different purposes, because there exist, for example, people who make propaganda, of course. But for propaganda we always say “it’s not me” who is responsible for that and “it’s not me” as a spectator who is guilty. It’s somebody who paid for this propaganda. He’s guilty. It’s not true, both sides are: people who made the propaganda – the movie or material – and the people they catch for this material. They also take care of that. People stupid and without enough criticism accept and give themselves the possibility to be fooled. It works like that.

Do you have another film that you’re working on now?

Yes, I just finished a feature film called A Gentle CreatureShortly after the interview, A Gentle Creature was announced as an official selection of this year’s Cannes Film Festival.. It will be out – I hope – soon. Also, I’m working on a few documentaries. We will start preparation for the next feature film in Autumn.