If you can get past the bland but paradoxically horrific title of this Holocaust documentary — “From the Auschwitz Chronicle” — you will have a worthwhile two-hour (plus) experience.
The movie is being shown at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as part of the Holocaust Remembrance Day on Wednesday, April 25 at 6:30 p.m. It is being co-presented by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and Holocaust Center of Northern California.
The documentary is actually five shorter documentaries that have been woven together to create a vivid tapestry of disparate elements of the experience of the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The vignettes share the same Polish filmmaker, Michal Bukojemski, and the same narrators, Kenneth Branagh and Miriam Margolyes. The film was created in conjunction with the History Channel.
Bukojemski focused these different aspects of Auschwitz to bring home one central point: that there is “not one monolithic experience of the horror of Auschwitz,” according to the press release.
By doing this, he has succeeded in making the overwhelming concept of Auschwitz more comprehensible, not by minimizing the horror but by breaking it down into coherent pieces that can be considered separately as well as contributing to the overall whole.
“From the Auschwitz Chronicle” takes literal excerpts from testimonies of the survivors — from prisoners to SS officers — and presents them so they form a storyline on one of many aspects of the camp. There are five distinct 20 to 25 minute “chapters”: “Roll Call,” “The Orchestra,” The Platform in Birkenau,” “Love” and “The Sonderkommando.” Each has its own beginning, middle, end and credits, and could serve as a standalone piece.
Each one begins with a brief history of where it fits in with the scheme of things (the opening image is of Hitler and a discussion of “Mein Kampf”) then builds a story by using a collage of archival footage, photographs, and paintings. Branagh and Margolyes narrate the pieces from the actual words of different eyewitnesses.
Without describing each segment in detail, suffice to say that this is truly an experience where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It explores a multitude of angles, including that of a couple who found love amid the despair to an orchestra playing for its life.
Its real genius, however, is that Bukojemski employs a sort of Virginia Woolf-style, impressionistic approach. Each story is pieced together by many different voices and eyewitnesses of a singular aspect or event (such as the 23-hour roll call triggered by an escape), an amalgam that results in a surprisingly cohesive narrative.
Each part comes alive in a way that a single omniscient point of view could never have captured. (These are survivors, not writers with the talent of an Elie Wiesel.) This style suits the cinematic form more than a novel does, which sometimes relies on a single character to tell the whole particular story.
By having the same narrator give voice to all the men and women avoids the jarring effect of listening to too many disparate voices, accents and ages. The two seem to give voice to the Everyman and Everywoman who experienced this particular horror.
As each passage is read, a photograph, usually of the witnesses’ camp mug shot, is display beside their name. Thus the viewer is always aware of who is speaking and when the different individuals are being portrayed with no interruption in the flow of each compelling story.
If there is any criticism, it is the splicing in of touristy glimpses of the camp today. There are too many shots of legions of Israeli teenagers streaming through carrying Israel’s flag, as well as survivors wandering about different sites, crying, praying or lighting candles. Showing Auschwitz today is obviously meant to enliven this film with a contemporary feel and prevent it from being labeled as yet another dusty history lesson.
But the unexpected images of these tourists, as well as their murmurs and out-of-context chuckles, is distracting and, in my opinion, borderline demeaning. A technique that is an obvious attempt to draw in young audiences by showing them that they, too, are part of the picture falls as flat as a dissonant note and undercuts the film’s purpose.
Overall, however, “From the Auschwitz Chronicle” manages to find fresh, new angles that are worthy of viewing, even by those who think they would dread another film about Auschwitz. It also works as a good introduction for the uninitiated. And that is no easy task.
“From the Auschwitz Chronicle” will be screened at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Wednesday, April 25 at 6:30 p.m. Contains Hebrew, German and Polish with English subtitles.