Toronto 2016: 'Austerlitz,' 'Denial' return to the scene of Nazi crimes

Sergei Loznitsa’s eerily brilliant “Austerlitz” consists entirely of a series of black-and-white long takes, framed by a stationary camera on the grounds of what used to be the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany. Like so many patient, observational documentaries of its kind, the movie continually inspires at least two different, not always conflicting impulses: The temptation to get lost in the image is overwhelming, even as your attention is continually being refreshed and stimulated by the flood of tourists passing before the camera.

On the one hand, this is people watching at its most grimly perverse, and you may wonder at first if Loznitsa means to solicit your contempt for the better part of 90 minutes. It’s hard not to cringe at the visitors who pull out their selfie sticks and playfully pose behind the barred gate at the camp’s entrance, which bears the notorious slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work sets you free”) that also greeted prisoners at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. You may even start to judge the tourists for wearing shorts and T-shirts (“Today is your lucky day!” announces one of them), or for casually eating in a place where thousands of Jews and political prisoners died of starvation, among other causes. 

Inevitably, I found my own damning thoughts drifting toward my own visit to Auschwitz a few years ago — a journey undertaken with somber respect, though I recall consuming a few snacks and taking more than a few pictures on the grounds. (No T-shirts, at least; it was February.) I also recall thinking about the different purposes served by a memorial, a tourism site and a place of education, and the strangeness — if also the logic — of a single place freighted with so much dreadful history that it must fulfill all three.

All of which is to say that there is certainly more to “Austerlitz” — which screened in the festival’s Wavelengths section, devoted to the adventurous and the avant-garde — than an opportunity to feel quietly superior to the souls we see on screen. In his excellent narrative features (“My Joy,” “In the Fog”) and documentaries (“The Event,” “Maidan”), the Ukrainian-born Loznitsa has shown himself to be a master of composition and duration, a filmmaker who shuns outside commentary and instead turns an unbroken shot into a landscape of ever-changing meaning. The longer you watch “Austerlitz,” the more it reveals — about this place and its lingering ghosts, as well as the men and women traipsing through in the present day.

The crisp black-and-white images, at once redolent of and strikingly different from World War II photographs, suggest the impossibility of bridging the distance between that moment and our own. (The irretrievability of the past and the evocative power of physical spaces are at least two themes that bind “Austerlitz” to W.G. Sebald’s 2001 novel of the same name.) The very presence of tourists holds up an eerie echo to history: Does their freedom of movement inadvertently mock the memory of the inmates who were so constricted? Or is it a kind of reclamation, done in defiance of the camp’s dreadful original purpose?

The answers to these and other questions may be as inscrutable as the faces on screen, but Loznitsa invites us to keep looking. In ways both troubling and profound, he has turned a place of sacred remembrance into a remarkable object of contemplation.

From crowd-watching to crowd-pleasing: A visit to a death camp also plays a significant role in “Denial,” though for an entirely different purpose. This hammily entertaining courtroom procedural, directed by Mick Jackson (“L.A. Story,” “The Bodyguard”) from a screenplay by David Hare, dramatizes the 1996 libel suit brought against the American author Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) and her publisher, Penguin Books, by the English historian David Irving (Timothy Spall), who claimed that Lipstadt had slandered him by calling him a Holocaust denier. The case became a sort of moral and historical booby trap, as Lipstadt and her legal team feared that it would effectively permit Irving, a lifelong Adolf Hitler admirer, to put the Holocaust on trial.

For anyone who has ever bemoaned the surfeit of movies about history’s darkest chapter — or worse, movies that use it as a convenient springboard for another subject — “Denial” will immediately raise a few red flags. The movie is about many things besides the Holocaust, not least the striking differences between the American and British legal systems, particularly with regard to libel. (Because the case was tried in the U.K., the burden of proof was on Lipstadt, not Irving.) It’s about the legal tactics that ensure victory in a court of law, as well as the rhetorical flourishes that succeed in the court of public opinion.

Most of all, perhaps, it’s about the comforting, reliable pleasures of British acting and overacting, repeatedly pitting Spall’s monstrous (and unambiguously Trumpian) performance as Irving against Tom Wilkinson’s similarly self-aggrandizing turn as Richard Rampton, the most formidable of Lipstadt’s lawyers. Not to be counted out is Weisz’s brassy, almost impressively grating take on Lipstadt, who seems so determined to seize her moment that she doesn’t realize she’s already been upstaged by a memorably awful wig.

At times “Denial” reminded me of nothing so much as “Philomena,” another machine-tooled entertainment in which a comically mismatched pair pursue justice by looking past their differences and excavating history. Here, however, the characters’ mission leads them to the gates of Auschwitz itself, where Rampton coldly scrutinizes the interior of a gas chamber and the bombed-out remnants of a crematorium, searching for the incontrovertible evidence that will prove Irving’s undoing.

Whether such evidence actually exists — and how to go about arguing one’s case if it doesn’t — is one of the questions that makes “Denial” inescapably fascinating, despite its paint-by-numbers filmmaking and a premise as absurd, in its own way, as Irving’s lawsuit. Do we really need a movie that goes to the trouble of reminding us that the Holocaust happened — or worse, that lends even a moment’s credence to anti-Semitic lunacy? The counterintuitive strength of Jackson’s movie is that it seems to answer that question with a decisive “no.”

When Lipstadt insists on taking the stand and letting a few Holocaust survivors testify, her lawyers rebuff her with what is by far the film’s most interesting argument: Some attacks are not worth dignifying with a response, no matter how morally authoritative and emotionally satisfying the response would be. The ideal way to defend and remember the Holocaust, “Denial” suggests, is not with impassioned outrage and eyewitness testimony, but rather with rigorous research, cold-blooded calculation and a willingness to let the enemy hang himself with his own rope. 

To the extent that this argument suggests a moratorium on the standard dramatic tropes and emotional manipulations of so much Holocaust cinema, “Denial” elicits a certain admiration. But the film itself falters by including one scene in the courtroom that briefly, shockingly returns us to Auschwitz, and serves as a reminder of how hard it is to visualize a death camp without exploiting its memory. For one unfortunate moment, “Denial” loses the thread of its well-reasoned argument — and treats us as if we, too, belong in the jury box.

Another form of denial is confronted and denounced in Terry George’s “The Promise,” a love story set against the brutal backdrop of the Armenian genocide. Wishfully conceived along the lines of a big, old-fashioned romantic war epic, the film stars Oscar Isaac as Michael, an Armenian medical student who finds himself in Constantinople when World War I erupts and the systemic slaughter of his people begins. Complicating or just trivializing matters, Michael, though betrothed to a woman from his home village, has fallen in love with a beautiful, worldly Armenian woman named Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who is herself already involved with Chris (Christian Bale), an American journalist.

As the end credits note, Turkey has never acknowledged or taken responsibility for the Armenian genocide. (In defiance of a campaign promise he made in 2008, President Obama has declined to use the word “genocide” to describe the 1915 massacre.) Any film that dares to address the reality of those horrors can thus be defended, up to a point, as having intrinsic value as a social document or act of witness. And yet it’s hard to say exactly whose memory is being preserved by a picture as cliché-ridden as “The Promise,” with its alternately limp and mechanical storytelling and its unpersuasive grab bag of an international cast, clearly motivated by considerations of commercial viability rather than historical authenticity.

To argue that the film helps fill a void is to hold the medium to a ridiculously low standard (and a far lower one than George met with his superior 2004 wartime drama, “Hotel Rwanda”). Someday, perhaps, public recognition of and interest in the Armenian genocide will bring forth a movie on the subject as indelible as “Shoah,” as sweeping as “Schindler’s List.” It’s far too early for this still-contested tragedy to already have its “Pearl Harbor.”

justin.chang@latimes.com

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