Photos at an Atrocity

‘From Where They Stood,’ a bafflingly pretentious French documentary about the Holocaust

The Holocaust is inherently bleak subject matter, and there’s already a lot of documentary film work on the subject. So the new documentary From Where They Stood faces a pretty steep interest gap in terms of justifying its existence. But as it happens, the French documentary has a pretty good hook. Various victims of the Holocaust were able to take photos of themselves, and smuggle them out. Who would do such a thing? When and where did they accomplish this? And how? But most importantly, why?

If you were expecting that From Where They Stood would attempt to answer any of these questions, I have some bad news. It doesn’t. From Where We Stood is among the most pretentious and pointless documentaries I have ever seen, and this isn’t a designation I put upon the movie lightly. The first six minutes are, I kid you not, just a slowly panning close-up of some water in a marshy area where someone took some of the photos in question.

Well, maybe. I’m not completely sure, since despite Christophe Cognet and the professors interviewed going to great pains to emphasize lighting and framing, there’s almost no basic information or context establishing what these photos are even about. To even say that these are photos of people in the death camps isn’t that helpful, because a lot of these photos actually depict concentration camps, not death camps.

If you’re having trouble grasping the distinction, it’s because the Holocaust was actually a fairly broad event. In popular consciousness when most people hear about the Holocaust they’re actually thinking about the Shoah, the part of the Holocaust that was specifically about Nazis killing the Jews. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of Holocaust victims weren’t actually Jewish, because the Nazis would round up just about anyone they considered to be a social undesirable and send them off to a concentration camp. While all the death camps were concentration camps, not all the concentration camps were death camps, particularly in the earlier part of the war.

I have to explain all of this because From Where We Stood makes no effort to, despite this basic information of the Holocaust being very important to understanding how it is that so much of the photography discussed was taken by members of organized anti-Nazi resistance groups. Come to think of it, I’m not sure any of the people in From Where They Stood, photographers or photographed, were actually Jewish just because there’s so little information presented about them at all. Rudolf Cisar, of the Czechoslovakian resistance group Ruda took the first photos that the film profiles. Try to search for information about him if you like. I didn’t have much luck.

Ideally, the purpose of a documentary like From Where They Stood would be to inform viewers about lesser-known people from this part of history. But despite clearly having far more information about Rudolf Cisar than we do, the various professors share almost none of it, instead poring over not terribly interesting technical details of the pictures. The extent to which they manage to talk about nothing would be impressive if it didn’t come off as borderline antagonistic.

In one of the most baffling awful editing decisions I can ever remember seeing, conversations between professors of different nationalities requiring translation…include the translator. We’ll get English subtitles of the French dialog. Then someone will talk in German for awhile, no subtitles, and we wait for the translator to speak in French, and then the French part gets subtitles. At nearly two hours in length From Where They Stood is already overlong, so there simply isn’t any excuse for this. Why do we need to listen people say the same thing twice?

The fact that there’s a lot of genuinely disturbing material begging for more details only increases the frustration. Midway through the documentary we see a scrapbook, which features photos of Buchenwald airbrushed to remove people lying on the ground. Apparently, this risked making the concentration camp seem too pleasant. Photo alteration is a pretty serious historical issue, but the film neither explains nor contextualizes it, as if doing so would somehow be akin to making a pro-Nazi political comment.

So it is that instead of useful information about the Holocaust, From Where They Stood continually bores the viewer with technical details. Yet even on that level, too much of the documentary is too obviously staged to be a trustworthy source on that–observe one scene where film is handled with bare hands. From Where We Stood appears to be trying to make some kind of statement about the nature of film. There’s a late scene that’s just people taking selfies at a historical site. Are we supposed to be judging their frivolity? Possibly. Although really, making a documentary that’s only willing to make a statement as morally challenging as “the Holocaust was bad” really isn’t much better in that department.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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