From Where They Stood (À Pas Aveugles)
It feels almost deceitful to call From Where They Stood a film about the Holocaust. For 15 years, director Christophe Cognet has dedicated his career to uncovering how the world found out about the concentration camps, to uncover which heroes risked their lives to take clandestine photographs and document the hell the Nazis were hiding from the world.
This isn’t a film about the horrors of the Holocaust; it’s a film about the journey of history and the preservation of knowledge. Indeed, later generations almost take knowing about the Holocaust for granted, failing to consider the pain and bravery it took to share this unmistakable evil with the world. At a time when “Holocaust scepticism” is somehow on the rise, Cognet’s retracing of the past is not only timeless but also timely.
Moreover, as a director, Cognet doesn’t centre the film around himself – he never breaks into ostentatious monologues, like other big-name documentarians. Instead, he allows the experts to lead the dialogue, letting them explain the historical evidence with precision and care. In this regard, Cognet very much becomes the audience’s POV: a passive yet respectful conduit through which to imbibe the research. It’s easy to do, as the production employs a very down-beat stylistic approach: there’s no theatrical score or self-aggrandising cinematography – nothing to steal the spotlight away from the heavy subject matter. Equally, it should be noted that this isn’t sombre in tone – if anything, it’s ethereal and weirdly hypnotic. With it’s stripped-back aesthetic, the documentary oscillates between past and present seamlessly, in a mesmerising display of archaeological commitment.
Unhurried (perhaps even languorous) in its pacing, From Where They Stood is the cinematic equivalent of slowly wandering around a well-maintained museum. The impetus isn’t to uncover some shocking revelation, but rather to thoughtfully admire the hard work of those who record and preserve history, both then and now. Of course, this slow-going may be too much for casual viewers (it’s literally as intense as looking at old photographs can be), but to audiences with perseverance, it’s deeply rewarding.
Early on, a groundskeeper remarks to the crew how flashes of white nestled in the grassy fields are actually leftover bone fragments from the extermination camps – bursts of history reclaimed by nature. As the custodian puts it, “The victims are still in the soil.” History may have moved on, but the horrors are frozen in place. Thank goodness there are films like From Where They Stood to remind us of this.
À pas aveugles (From Where They Stood) does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2021 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.