The phrase “bear witness” is often used to describe the perpetual requirement to expose, affirm, and explain the events of the Holocaust. But how do we continue to meet this need for history and humanity when the witnesses themselves are gone?
This is the question with which French documentarian Christophe Cognet has grappled for much of his career. Cognet’s specific interest is in the art left behind, and therefore carried forward, by victims who would otherwise have been silenced. “From Where They Stood” continues his quest by examining the few photographs that were taken by prisoners in concentration camps and still exist today.
Each segment of the film is dedicated to the photos captured by one person, like Rudolf Cisar, who managed to take around 50 photos at Dachau. Or Georges Angeli, who took 11 clandestine pictures at Buchenwald, or Alberto Errera, who was killed after attempting to escape Auschwitz in 1944.
The photographers were unimaginably courageous members of the Sonderkommando or other prison work units, forced to help with the disposal of gas-chamber victims or aid in disinformation campaigns designed to deny their own torture. They hid their cameras under newspapers, inside latrines, or underground and often snuck them out through fellow members of the Resistance.
Cognet contrasts the images with the present-day sites where they were taken, the film’s pointed silence broken only by birds or cars or even, jarringly, contemporary tourists taking their own pictures.
The SS did its best to hide the truth of the camps, creating reams of propaganda and destroying as much evidence as possible. So these photos are, in some cases, our only accurate glimpses into specific moments in time.
As such, Cognet’s aim is to imagine as accurately as possible “the very instant [the photo] was able to capture.” He does this both by inviting archivists to scrutinize each one in minute detail, and by bringing historians to the vestiges of the camps where they were taken. In the process, these experts also become detectives and archaeologists; they examine shadows to determine the time of day, study the ground to match where photographers stood, and review records to understand what they might have been experiencing as they held the camera.
The result is a film that is not only a systematic history and an ongoing testament but also a kind of performance art. Cognet has already made three other films about the artists and artwork produced in concentration camps, as well as a companion book to this one. His obsessive approach can, at times, feel meta-textual, in the way it homes in on concepts of representation. It is not 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 context (the present) on top of another (the past).
In his desire to honor, respect, and analyze the inconceivable, Cognet remains determinedly, dryly solemn. Any trace of sentimentality, it seems, would be considered a betrayal of the utterly factual intent of the photographers. On the other hand, his work also demands speculation, which is a form of fiction in itself. And ironically, it is this speculative 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 photos were captured, and use the position of the sun to narrow down the hour in which they were taken. And no matter how many details he collects, we will still be standing in a field, rather than a concentration camp. We will still be looking at these pictures to learn from them, rather than making them in order to communicate.
We can, thanks to movies like this one, continue to bear witness. But we will never truly know the reality he tries so hard to unearth, and that remains our burden to hold.
“From Where They Stood” opens Friday in Los Angeles.