Life inside Nazi death camps as captured in clandestine photographs of prisoners

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Like the documentary film where they stood from opens, director Christophe Cognet and his team sift through white fragments on the surface of burial pits near the crematoria of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland. The tiny shards are human bones that have not been fully cremated.

The world of Nazi concentration camps was barely seen by outsiders until these camps were liberated. By then, the Nazis themselves had destroyed the extermination mechanisms and killed most of the prisoners deported there.

In great detail, Cognet examines the rare photographs taken by prisoners in these camps, how these images were made, and how the photos survived. This project is even more detailed in his book Shards (Editions du Seuil, 2019), whose title can be translated into English as bursts, flashes, splinters or shards.

Director Christophe Cognet and members of his team in a scene from where they stood from Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment. © The documentary workshop

“In these places dedicated to the negation of the human being, regaining control of one’s image was an act of resistance. All of these photographs have that in common,” Cognet says by phone from Paris. All taken in secret, some photos were taken by prisoners assigned to photography workshops in Buchenwald, most often to make death certificates. Some are incredibly provocative images of smiling young women in Ravensbruck who have endured torturous medical experiences. Their stylish clothes and the camera that made the image were from newcomers to the camp.

Others show prisoners relaxing on a Sunday in Buchenwald, with the chimney of a crematorium in the background. Cognet notes that the few SS officers who saw these images wanted them retouched to avoid suggesting mild treatment of the prisoners. “And then the prisoners who survived also wanted the same images retouched, to avoid giving the impression that the camp wasn’t so bad,” he says, citing the fireplace as evidence to the contrary.

The film’s most harrowing and shocking images capture moments before and after groups of women were gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The camera was held by a member of the Sonderkommando, prisoners who led other prisoners into the gas chambers and then burned their bodies. A photograph shows them walking among the corpses of the new dead to be burned in the open air.

“You see the act of resistance there in the photographs being tilted, removed from those scenes, and taken under the most dangerous of circumstances,” Cognet explains. “We assume that a photo was taken behind a tree or from inside the gas chamber. The resistance is in the form of the photograph itself.

A photograph of a victim of a Nazi medical experiment in Ravensbruck in a scene from where they stood from Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment. © The documentary workshop

Cognet says he was hesitant to produce a film and a book about the photographs after he finished Because I was a painter (2013), a film about the artists and the art they made in the camps. Drawings, he said, could be made from memory, but photographs required the physical presence of the person making the image.

The French title of his new film, Blind Step (roughly “Walking Blind”) is based on the translation of a Yiddish novel by Leyb Rochman, a survivor of post-war Poland, in the ruins of what had once been a Jewish world. Some of these photographs have already been seen and exhibited, and four images of Birkenau inspired the 2003 book of reflections, Pictures Despite Everything (“Images despite everything”), by the French art historian Georges Didi-Huberman.

Cognet’s goal was to exhume the facts with the bone fragments. To learn more about the photographs, he says, it was crucial to go beyond their mind-blowing and chilling effect, to know where the photos were taken, to identify the subjects and photographers, and to show how smuggled cameras captured these images.

“When we look at these images, we have apprehension. We don’t look at them, because we are afraid to look. We are afraid of finding them horrible. We are also afraid of having no emotions. To really look at them, we have to find a way to put aside our fear and pain of seeing them,” he said.

A scene from where they stood from showing the superposition (on the landscape plan of the former camp) of an image of the same view of the camp taken during its operation Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment. © The documentary workshop

“We need to understand the act of taking the photographs, physically see how it was accomplished, and then look at them and describe them. The third step was to work with historians to understand the context of these images,” he says. “Without any of the three, you won’t understand them. My film and my book are an invitation for viewers and readers to do this work with me.

At the sites where photos were taken, where the former camps are often empty places (full of tourists during the day), Cognet superimposes transparent photographs of the same site taken by prisoners on site. His camera slowly pans across silent landscapes in the camps as Claude Lanzmann did in his epic nine-hour film Holocaust (1985).

“I am influenced by Tarkovsky, by his way of showing a landscape, by the German portrait painter August Sander and by the [French-born] photographer Antoine d’Agata”, explains Cognet. “All my work here is to find a new perception that takes us beyond what we have of the images made by the Allied armies and those made by the Nazis themselves, and to have the point of view of the deportees . These images, put in their contexts and in the places where they were taken, give us an absolutely unique perception of what the camps were like. Whether or not they are art, finding that unique perception is the mission of art.

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