By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “KZ,” Image Entertainment, 2005]
No matter how long you live and how many Holocaust documentaries you’ve endured, you should never be seduced by the impression that you’ve seen it all; the Nazi phenomenon was apparently almost cosmic in its limitless and deathless ability to re-manifest itself as jaw-dropping news, even 60 years later. One of the most original and philosophically fluent documentaries on the subject ever made, Rex Bloomstein’s “Kz” (2005) casts a gimlet eye on not only the mass exterminations but the ways they are considered today not in films, but on the ground. We begin on an opulent cruise trip up the Danube, from which we board a tour bus to Mauthausen, Austria, where a guide plainly tells us that industrialization in Austria at large only began around 1938 and was a product of concentration camp slave labor. Then the well-dressed, well-fed, middle class new-millennium tourists disembark for a guided tour of the most notorious death camp in Austria.
Bloomstein keeps quiet for most of the film, simply filming the calm, saturnine, hypnotic lecturers (many of them young men with SS grandfathers) as they matter-of-factly regale crowd after crowd of international vacationers with the grueling minutiae of what one calls the “stations of life” of a Mauthausen inmate. We also spy openly at the observers, mostly American high schoolers in their push-up bras, eyeliner and designer wear, who mostly go pale and sometimes grow faint from what they hear. “It’s an attack on your mind,” one German adult mumbles over the crematoriums (after we see a serious but kitschy young couple take snapshots of each other by the open ovens), and this is Bloomstein’s real subject the legacy of unempathizable, emaciated humanity the Nazis left behind, impossible to fathom but, as time goes by, more and more appallingly folded in with the other elements of our everyday culture. One might visit Mauthausen to learn about the functioning of evil, but our quotidian comfort and complacency remain unaffected even the showerheads have been stolen as souvenirs.
Bloomstein doesn’t stop there while his favorite interview is an Austrian guide whose life is slowly falling apart because of his Mauthausen obsession, he also interviews a plethora of elderly locals, all of them horrified by what they’d seen so long ago but none very bothered by their inaction or even their fond memories of Hitler Youth solidarity and, in one case, a happy marriage to an SS officer who worked at the camp. Mauthausen thrives now as a happy suburb with its own McDonald’s and touristy beer garden (enjoyed today much as it was during the war by the SS). Virtually every image of “Kz” is a chilling, ironic mini-movie worthy of an encyclopedic Umberto Eco unpacking, down to the Holocaust-culture insistence by the filmed tourists to mourn Jews (“Anyone know Kaddish?” one German woman asks of the crowd), even though the guides explicitly say that Mauthausen’s hundreds of thousands of victims were overwhelmingly Poles, Catholics, Russians, homosexuals, criminals and “asocials” (a label which, the quietest and cruelest guide intones, could be affixed to anyone). But of course Mauthausen, for the visitors, as well as the film’s audience, represents “the camps” as well as merely itself, and what we know about the Holocaust is nothing today if not representations: numbers, photographs, movies, testimony.
Raúl Ruiz, with his 75th or so feature, “Klimt” (2006), offers a much more conventional or conventionally unconventional portrait of Austrian history, plunging into the Art Nouveau era and his titular hero’s biography as if into a love pit full of nymphomaniacs. Klimt, by most accounts, was a prickly artiste who painted a lot, bickered a bit with the Viennese art world institutions, had a few relationships and then died of pneumonia. But in Ruiz’s version, he was a rabid, anti-social progressive constantly being seduced in two-way mirrored rooms by naked women and getting into spats with stuffy society types in crowded dining rooms. (Little mention is made of the Vienna Secession, an organizing effort that would’ve required a measure of social diplomacy, tact and camaraderie on the artist’s part.) Ruiz also implies, rather surrealistically, that Klimt (played with shrugging distraction by John Malkovich in a sea of European accents) went insane, or at least delusional, toward the end of his life. As a film, it’s a lush, ridiculous fantasy of an artsy, clichéd Mitteleuropa that never quite existed (brothels full of mustachioed women, a bulging-eyed Egon Schiele, played by Kinski scion Nikolai) peopled by symbolic personages (dream muse Saffron Burrows, nameless bureaucrat Stephen Dillane), all revolving around Klimt as if he were a walking martyr for misunderstood geniuses everywhere. Like many of Ruiz’s films (not, it should be said, his magisterial version of Proust, “Time Regained”), it’s a ripe lark, thick with dream interpolations and Euro-opulence of the old school.
“KZ” (Image Entertainment) will be available on January 15th; “Klimt” (Koch Lorber) is now available on DVD.