Berlinale 2021: Director Christophe Cognet On Retracing The History Of Holocaust Photographs

Director Christophe Cognet joins us on Close-Up Culture to discuss From Where They Stood. The film, which recently premiered at Berlinale, retraces the history of pictures taken in secret and at risk of death by deportees in Nazi camps.

What does it mean to you to screen ‘From Where They Stood’ at Berlinale?

The film is a German-French coproduction – part of the crew is German. Regarding the subjects and themes of it, of course we couldn’t hope for a better place to screen the film. I am very grateful that the Berlinale Forum team have chosen to show it this year. It’s a little ironic that this film, which focuses on the physical dimension of the photos, starts in a virtual way.

You’ve worked on projects about Nazi camps for decades now. Where did the inspiration to make ‘From Where They Stood’ come from?

After Because I Was A Painter, I thought I had completed my work on this subject. But something in me resisted this feeling.

And then one day I discovered Leib Rochman’s book, Blindly Around The World, and thought about this very beautiful title. Something resonated in me. I told myself that the drawings were above all a question of gaze and less about the body, while it is the opposite for photographs. You don’t have to be physically in front of the subject of your drawing. In a concentration camp, you can watch an execution, for example, and draw the corresponding picture from memory in the evening . On the other hand, to take a photo you have to be there physically in front of the subject – but not necessarily aiming the camera or even looking at what you are photographing. That was the case in the pictures by George Angeli at Buchemwald and certainly a part of those of Alberto Errera Birkenau. 

This simple realisation made me want to make this film. It is more physical and harsher than my previous work, which were more “mental” (in the sense of the “cosa mentale“).

What did you hope to explore, discover or even achieve from retracing the footsteps of these courageous men and women?

I wanted to consider the act of taking a photograph as much as the images themselves. To understand them, I therefore had to try to understand the conditions of their realisation. To retrace the history of their creation. For that, it was necessary to visit the sites [where the photographs had been taken] among the remains of the camps. 

The story of the film thus parallels the history of my research with that of their [the photographs] realisation. My goal is not necessarily to find the exact angle or the exact point of view of each photograph, but to provoke questions in this double movement. And sometimes a time tremor is caused, in a fleeting and labile way. Maybe we can have a vision, a pure perception of what those amps were. It is sensitive, not intellectual, knowledge that is very valuable. And thus, by retracing their acts and all the risks taken, it is also a way of doing them justice and of paying them homage. To me, the film is kind of a praise of them.

How did your connection to, or perspective of, the photos change as you visited the sites where they were taken?

It a process of progressive discovery. I created a book on these photos during all the preparation of the film (Éclats, published in September 2019 by Editions du Seuil, Paris), where I tried to describe each of these images. I combined the exploration of places where they were made with the search for words to describe them. It was a very intense experience, both knowing and realising the immense difficulty that we have to understand them and our near impossibility to apprehend what the camps and the Shoah were.

And what I saw in them, what I perceived, is the immensity of my ignorance and the gulf that separates us from the concentration camp experience. This perception is very precious, it is unique. And I am deeply convinced of this: only the work of cinema and writing can bring it to us.

I was taught about the Holocaust at school but was never shown any photos. I wondered if you could recall the first time you saw images from WWII concentration camps?

Like many schoolchildren of my generation in France, I saw Resnais’s film, Nuit et Brouilllard, in class at the age of 12. It’s as if I had discovered the concentration camps, the Shoah and the cinema at the same time. This film left me in a state of bewilderment to such an extent that I locked this whole universe in a little box in my head, with the idea of coming back to it one day, when I could. 

The opportunity was given to me when I met the French painter Boris Taslitzky, a resistance fighter deported to Buchenwald where he produced clandestine drawings. He was 90 years old and I was 30. It was the opportunity to open my little box. I discovered with him all these clandestine images, which would allow me, I believed, to access the point of view of the deportees, and therefore to bypass or exceed, to complete, the traumatic images of Resnais’ film. So it is through the cinema that I had to confront these images.

What impact do you hope the film has on audiences? 

For me, the film is a kind of journey which tells the story of an impossible encounter with the past, but which sometimes finds some real interstices of perception. An experience of adventure at a glance, sometimes blocked, often impossible. The photographs as a force of attestation when considered in their two dimensions: acts and images. Sensitive knowledge (and non-intellectual). And above all that they share the great admiration I have for these women and men who risked their lives to show us traces of what they were going through. For me, these photographs are among the most extreme images in the history of humanity.

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