What does freedom mean to them?
This is the question with which French documentarian Christophe Cognet has grappled for the importance of his career. Cognet’s specific interest is in the art left before and thus carried forward, by victims who would else have been silenced. “ From Where They Stood ” continues his hunt by examining the many photos that were taken by captures in attention camps and still live moments.
Each member of the film is devoted to the prints captured by one person, like Rudolf Cisar, who managed to take around 50 prints at Dachau. Or Georges Angeli, who took 11 covert filmland at Buchenwald, or Alberto Errera, who was killed after trying to escape Auschwitz in 1944.
The shutterbugs were unimaginably valorous members of the Sonderkommando or other captivity work units, forced to help with the disposal of gas-chamber victims or aid in intimation juggernauts designed to deny their torture. They hid their cameras under journals, inside latrines, or underground and frequently snuck them out through fellow members of the Resistance.
Cognet contrasts the images with the present-day spots where they were taken, the film’s pointed silence broken only by catcalls or buses or indeed, jarringly, contemporary excursionists taking their filmland.
The SS did its stylish to hide the verity of the camps, creating reams of propaganda and destroying as important substantiation as possible. So these prints are, in some cases, our only accurate casts into specific moments in time.
The result is a film that isn’t only a methodical history and an ongoing testament but also a kind of performance art. Cognet has formerly made three other flicks about the artists and artwork produced in attention camps, as well as a companion book to this bone. His compulsive approach can, at times, feel meta-textual, in the way it homes in on generalities of representation. It isn’t enough for him to consider what might have been; he needs us to see it both as it was and also is now, placing one environment( the present) on top of another( the history).
In his desire to recognize, respect, and dissect the implausible, Cognet remains doggedly, dryly solemn. Any trace of saccharinity, it seems, would be considered a treason of the hugely factual intent of the shutterbugs. On the other hand, his work also demands enterprise, which is a form of fabrication in itself. And ironically, it’s this academic in-between place where the movie holds the most power.
He can meet with the most prestigious experts, walk through the very spaces where the prints were captured, and use the position of the sun to constrict down the hour in which they were taken. And no matter how numerous details he collects, we will still be standing in a field, rather than an attention camp. We’ll still be looking at this filmland to learn from them, rather than making them communicate.
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