Why call this film Museum?
My wish with this film was to recount the visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum as millions of visitors experience it each year. And this is exactly as a museum that the vast majority of the people apprehend this place, hence the choice of the title. I deliberately refused to add the mention “Auschwitz-Birkenau” to invite the viewer to ask himself, even before watching the film: can we reduce this place to a museum? If it is not a museum, then what is the function of this place today? Why are we going to Auschwitz?
The film gives almost nothing to see of the place or the exhibition and chooses to focus only on the visitors. Why this choice to not show anything?
During the film, we often hear visitors expressing a certain disappointment at not seeing anything, that there are only walls. Indeed, the question arises: what is there to be seen in Auschwitz? Do we go there to see? The very essence of this visit is the extermination of millions of human beings, their total annihilation. As one of the guides says, “it’s like they’ve never been here.” Confronting this absence and the hugeness of this void, therefore, remains the heart of this visit, which thus takes on a metaphysical and inner dimension. And this is why I have chosen to focus on the visitors and their reactions rather than on the exhibition rooms and their content.
It is also a film without a main character and apparent dramaturgy.
Yes, because this is the way the visit has been designed. At the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, guides are not here to tell the moving story of such victim or survivor in particular but rather to inform about the death machine that was at work in this place, with the most general and scientific approach possible. Therefore, as a visitor, we are swamped with technical information that, regardless of their harshness or rudeness, remain empty of emotion and dramaturgy. Paradoxically and unexpectedly for our story-telling era, the visit to Auschwitz turns out to be without drama. The tragedy that took place in this place is neither visible, illustrated, nor acted out. It is simply expressed through data and numbers, without any emotion. It, therefore, requires an effort from everyone to imagine it, feel it and appropriate it. And this is the reason why many visitors said they felt emotion in retrospect, long after leaving the place. Because it takes time to process this visit and understand its true purpose.
In recent years, many voices raised against mass tourism and dark tourism. Is that also what you wanted to condemn through this film?
First of all, I didn’t want to condemn anything. I simply wanted to show the place and the visit as they are and allow the spectators to take part in this visit as if they were there. I also did not want to focus on the inappropriate behavior of visitors because this does not reflect the reality of the place nor the diversity of reactions that visitors have on site. We do not visit the place in the same way nor do we react in the same way depending on whether we come from Poland, Israel, Germany, France, or Japan, whether we are a teenager or a senior citizen or whether we are on a group trip or a family trip. It was important for me to keep this diversity of points of view precisely so that the spectator could project himself into this visit with his own narrative, culture, and knowledge of the subject. Having said that, I must admit that, of course, it’s still very disturbing to see people gathering in front of the gas chamber’s door and waiting for their turn to enter. To some extent, we feel their more or less hidden wish to reenact and experience, step by step, the suffering and abuse that endured the victims here. It is very disturbing and it creates unease. But I don’t think it is enough to criticize the visitors or the Museum that provides services to them so that they can understand this place as much as they can. The collide between mass tourism and mass extermination is unfortunately inherent in the existence of this place as a museum and this is something we must comply with.
Was it hard to get the Museum’s agreement to film inside its walls?
Most of the images of the film were shot in 2007. I was 23 at the time and I came alone to shoot, without informing the Museum of my arrival, neither of my project. I don’t think the Museum authorities took me very seriously, given my young age at the time. But since I was already there, they finally granted me this authorization to film, not without asking me if I did not want to interview specialists and historians. They had a hard time understanding that I only wanted to film visitors. But in 2019, when I came back to shoot the final sequences of the film, things were then much more supervised and restrained. I always had to have a guide by my side who accompanies me, informs me, advises me but also watches me in some way. I felt that the Museum wanted to have more control over the images taken of the place, which is completely understandable, given the sensitivity of the subject and the danger of media coverage through social networks.
Why did so much time elapse between these two shootings?
It just so happens that Museum and Das Kind, my previous film, were shot around the same period. Already at the time, I had to choose between these two projects. So I put aside Museum to be able to complete Das Kind, which deals, among others, with the Romanian Shoah. However, once the film was finished, I no longer had the psychological resources to continue working on the Shoah. So I started working on other projects and Museum remained as an unfinished film up until 2017, when, after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau during a personal trip, I realized that the footage I had shot back then was still very relevant and of great historical value. I thus decided to resume my work on Museum and finish it for good this time.
But it took you another 4 years to complete the film.
Yes, for the simple reason that I was in lack of funding, which didn’t give me any other alternative than to self-finance my work and realize a very large part of the work myself. And we are talking here about a colossal work, especially on the sound.
Can you tell us more about it?
Right from the beginning of the project, I knew that I would have to completely rebuild the sound of the film, simply because I could not put microphones on the anonymous visitors, meaning I was getting a very poor and unusable original sound. But also because I wanted to have flexibility in the arrangement of the sound, which for me is the element through which the visitor feels immersed in the visit. Therefore, most of the sound has been recreated in post-production. There was the work on sound effects, but moreover, there was the dubbing work, which required the participation of 85 actors in 11 languages. This interlace of languages was crucial to recount the international dimension of the place and this is what complexified the work on this film.
We precisely wonder if these words were really spoken by visitors or if they were written by you?
No, all these words have an original and authentic source. They come from the sound I recorded during the shooting, from interviews I led with visitors, from discussions in which I attended or even took part. They also come from press articles relating visits to Auschwitz, from posts written by visitors on TripAdvisor, from videos posted on Youtube by tourists filming themselves during the visit. All these sentences have been readjusted, sometimes even combined, so that they could be placed exactly where I wanted. Most of them have also been translated, meaning they have undergone processing. Therefore they are not identical to the original, but they are keeping their meaning and intention. There is only one fictional element in the film, which I won’t reveal, but which is fairly easy to identify, and which acts as a pseudo-narrative plot. I wanted this element to serve as a basic narrative thread for the film, precisely to underline what I mentioned earlier, namely that there is no story or drama when you visit Auschwitz. And that if we stick to the external aspect of the visit, the only element of dramaturgy remains this somewhat absurd thing. If I had a lot of trouble finding financing for the film, it was precisely because the film funds were asking me to put characters and dramaturgy, when I was trying to make them understand that this is the whole challenge of this visit to Auschwitz, namely this absence of dramaturgy and fictionalisation. In my opinion, this is even a beneficial thing, since it lets us but no choice to make an effort and seek further to understand, that is to say, deeper within ourselves. I, who have spent years exploring this subject, still find it difficult to tell myself that I have understood what is the Shoah. It questions me in my being. It is existential in its essence. And that’s what I wanted to highlight through this film.