History haunts Jewish Film Festival docs
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"What is the international camp language? It's beating." In an instant, a guide at the former concentration camp just outside of Mauthausen, Austria, transforms a group of high schoolers from giggly to terrified. From the looks of the parking lot, Mauthausen is like any other historical attraction. Sightseers roll up in enormous motor coaches, clutching digital cameras loaded only with fun-time Euro-vacation shots — until now.
There's no narration in KZ, Rex Bloomfield's layered doc about the Mauthausen camp's post–World War II transformation into an exceedingly unsettling tourist destination. (KZ is short for the German word Konzentrationslager, or concentration camp.) The film is largely composed of interviews with visitors, guides ("I've been taking antidepressants for years," one remarks woefully), and Mauthausen residents — many too young to remember the camp's horrors and some too old to realize that Hitler Youth nostalgia isn't something most folks would want caught on tape. The disconnect between town and camp, past and present, can be breathtaking. "McDonald's" and "Mauthausen" are painted on the same billboard; a young couple shrug off the fact that their comfy home once belonged to an SS officer; and the local tavern features lederhosen, suds, and a folkie strummer whose sunny lyrics praise "the cider tavern up by the KZ."
Though Bloomfield doesn't shape his film with archival footage, talking-head academics, or voice-overs, the way KZ is edited makes it pretty clear he's just as stunned as we are by the juxtapositions his film uncovers. An elderly Mauthausener remarks that during the war she wasn't sure what was going on in the camp, just that it was "nothing good"; moments later the camera cuts to a group nervously shuffling into the KZ's gas chamber, where they hear incredibly graphic descriptions of deaths that happened where they now stand.
For its San Francisco Jewish Film Festival engagement, KZ screens with the short The Holocaust Tourist: Whatever Happened to Never Again?, which examines the off-kilter rebirth of Jewish culture (think faux-Hebrew signage and "Jewish-style" restaurants that serve pork) in Krakow, Poland, owing to the popularity of Schindler's List. What visitors to Mauthausen or Krakow (the closest big city to Auschwitz) actually get out of their experiences is unclear; some seem deeply moved, while others are simply checking off another stop on, say, their "Highlights of Poland" itinerary. As both films point out, being a tourist is perhaps all most people can — or should — be in places where such evil still lingers.
Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, Israel, folks with zero interest in confronting horror head-on can't avoid it when a suicide bomber targets their hangout, a laid-back watering hole called Mike's Place. Amazingly, filming for the documentary Blues by the Beach — intended as a feel-good look at "real life in Israel" beyond headline-grabbing violence — had begun before the April 2003 attack. After the project's primary catalyst, American producer Jack Baxter, was seriously injured in the blast, Joshua Faudem (an Israeli American with a filmmaking background who happened to be a Mike's Place bartender) carried on with help from his then-girlfriend, Pavla Fleischer, also a filmmaker.
Despite this stunning chain of coincidences, Blues by the Beach unfortunately suffers from lack of focus, shifting from Baxter's search for a doc subject to Mike's Place to Faudem's failing relationship with Fleischer. Though the filmmakers' post-traumatic stress is well earned, it can get tedious. Far more inspiring is the resilience of Mike's Place itself. Visit the bar's Web site (www. mikesplacebars.com) for a striking illustration of how recent tragedy offers just as much opportunity for off-the-wall juxtaposition as anything left over from World War II: a page memorializing the victims of the bombing and another page proudly displaying pics from the bar's annual "Pimp-n-Ho" costume bash. SFBG
JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
July 20–Aug. 7
See Film listings for showtimes