Destination Unknown

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jane Fae

Destination Unknown
"Destination Unknown asks a subtly different question from most films that went before. Which is, how did those who came through that time survive? Even, have they truly survived?"

There are some films for which the simple phrase “write a review” feels inadequate: or worse, an insult to those featured. Which is approximately how I felt as I approached Destination Unknown, a riveting, yet simultaneously horrific documentary that asks of some of those who emerged alive from the Holocaust how they survived and, even more impertinently, how they have coped with surviving.

Sitting down to watch it, I fretted for all manner of reasons. Do we really need another film about the Holocaust? Because surely, by now, those of us who care must be aware of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis on the Jewish people and, to a lesser extent, other minorities. Isn't it all just a bit repetitive and - cynical thought – an easy win for directors looking to establish their reputation for seriousness? Worse, would it be appropriately respectful? Or yet another exercise in intrusive documentary-making, hitching a ride on the back of other peoples' grief.

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And, yes, a part of that fretfulness has to do with my own family history. A father from a relatively privileged Polish background who was nonetheless lucky, escaping Poland almost literally as the Germans marched in. I know the towns and country around Auschwitz and it is hard, hateful viewing those places as backdrop to slaughter.

In the end, though, I am glad I watched it. For Destination Unknown asks a subtly different question from most films that went before. Which is, how did those who came through that time survive? Even, have they truly survived?

As one woman puts it: “Who was better off: the one who died early in the war or the one who suffered so much for so many years? If you think I don't suffer now, you're wrong”. Its focus is firmly on those who remain – mostly now in their 80s and 90s – the victims, rather than the perpetrators. They are there but present, mostly, as background noise, a cacophony of hate against which those on camera tell their stories.

There is no voice-over, and that is right. For given what these survivors have to say, it would feel impertinent in the extreme to add some magisterial presence, untouched by past events, to “explain” them to us. The shaping of the narrative takes place in the editing suite, under the skillful eye of director Claire Ferguson, in the selection and ordering of the clips: a mixture of first-hand accounts, rare contemporary archive, and family Super 8 footage from after the war.

And it is a truly sad narrative because, in the end, there is a sense that few have ever truly escaped what befell them. For many, that time is distilled into one single horrific moment: the individual who had to decide, in a split second, whether to escape or to stay with his family and face certain death. He chose life: yet that moment still haunts him, 70 years on.

Or the prisoner stumbling upon a row of babies, casting about forlornly for their mothers, unaware that they had been killed moments before. The woman reviewing pictures of her family – her brother, her sister – all gone, in the blink of an eye. The brother still blaming himself for suggesting to his sister that she stay at the back of the crowd, because that was the safest place – only for their Nazi captors to change the rules and select her for death: “It bothered me all of my life. Because maybe if I would not interfere, did not try to save my sister that way […] maybe they would survive”.

There is no blame, no dishonour here. I do not believe I have ever suffered one tenth of what these people did; cannot imagine what it must feel like to see your entire life chances boiled down to one random moment of decision by a captor who detests you.

And that is the other aspect of these stories that shines through. The sheer randomness of it all, leading, in turn to a very obvious survivor guilt. In one prison yard, the sadistic commandant would lean over his balcony and shoot at female prisoners, killing or maiming in whatever way took his fancy.

Elsewhere, every tenth prisoner might be hauled out of line to be killed. Or every seventh. Or 11th. You never knew in advance: so nothing you did could affect the outcome. Except, here and there, individuals were lucky, being overlooked by camp guards, or managing to prise open a window to escape the fate that awaited their companions.

So yes. Those who survive are those who survived and it is inevitable that each will wonder why. What was it they did that meant they remained alive when every single other member of their family was brutally murdered? And they will ask, and they will worry at the question and some, such as the survivor who killed himself after the war was over, will not be able to cope with that question.

Yet there are others, including the grandfather who sees now, in his grandchildren, a living insult to the memory of Hitler who one feels have managed to do more than survive. In the end, then, a question worth asking and a film worth making.

Reviewed on: 15 Jun 2017
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Dcoumentary, featuring the testimony of Holocaust survivors.

Director: Claire Ferguson

Writer: Jonathan Key

Year: 2017

Runtime: 81 minutes

Country: US, UK, Austria, Poland

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