Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Last shouts: "Destination Unknown"

It may well be that, as old age takes its course, the number of Holocaust documentaries being produced diminishes; that this is more or less the final shout for those with first-hand experience of these nearly eight-decade-old events - even though the presence of actual, acknowledged fascists in the White House would seem to make their testimony more vital than ever. Claire Ferguson's Destination Unknown is modest in form - running to 81 minutes, compared to the hours Claude Lanzmann has logged on this subject over the years - and a little hazy in its organising principle, reaching out to a decidedly disparate roster of survivors: some who were based at Auschwitz, some Mauthausen, some Treblinka; some who knew Oskar Schindler and his devilish opposite Amon Goeth, many others who didn't. What Ferguson looks to be getting at is the range of people who were sent to the camps - from beardless boys to married couples - and the range of experiences they underwent there.

Several of Ferguson's subjects confess they succumbed to panic and hunkered down, believing that lowering one's head and following orders would be the only means of surviving this moment; others, however, vowed to stand their ground wherever possible, before gradually beginning to fight back; one man speaks movingly of how he was spared from the worst of the torture chambers by the intervention of another prisoner, never seen again. A focal point emerges in the form of Ed Mosberg, whom we first meet donning striped pyjamas and travelling to Mauthausen to aggressively push his story on the gathering tourists; the righteous hurt and anger sitting close to the surface of his performance art makes him an instantly more compelling figure than those interviewees sitting sedately in well-tended front parlours, and you can imagine an entire feature being constructed around his furious energies.

Elsewhere, as ever, it's those everyday details of life under the Nazi shadow that catch the ear: the youngster who sensed something was badly awry when he returned home from playing out to discover his beloved nanny had been disappeared, the survivor who hoped to erase his memories of the camps via the removal of his camp tattoo. (Not so easy: this evil went far beyond skin deep.) Schindler looms large in several interviews, as he has done over this chapter of history ever since Messrs. Keneally and Spielberg themselves intervened, although the stories Ferguson has gathered here serve to make an already extraordinary interlude - about workers looking in desperation to a capitalist to save them from fascism - seem more curious yet: the industrialist apparently told Helen Jonas (née Sternlicht) to remember the history of the Jews in Egypt, which hints he may have regarded himself as a latter-day Moses.

The whole emerges as a round-up, if that's not too triggering a word in this context, rather than a film building a thesis or towards some great revelation; for much of its running time, I found myself wondering whether these anecdotes could be reassembled in any order without any loss of force. (Ideally, we'd get a little less of Andrew Skeet's overworked score.) Still, plenty here could accurately be described as haunting: Jonas describing how her husband Joseph, whom she met on the day of Liberation, succumbed to a fatal depression, or Mosburg's wheelchair-bound, largely mute wife Cesia, who opens up only to detail her siblings' gruesome demises, and her desire to be reunited with them at the earliest available opportunity. Traces of this toxic horror persist into Ferguson's exteriors, shots of sunny, civilised, thoroughly 21st century European streets and byways that collectively invoke what we might call the Lanzmann paradox. It couldn't have happened here, your brain tells you. But it did.

Destination Unknown plays at the Curzon Soho this Thursday evening and at JW3 in West Hampstead on Sunday afternoon; both screenings will be followed by a Q&A.

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