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Berlinale Review: Christophe Cognet’s "From Where They Stood"

A documentary about the extraordinary clandestine photography carried out at great risk in concentration camps during the Second World War.
Daniel Kasman
From Where They Stood
Collapsing the time and space between our present and the horrors of the Holocaust, one can’t help but be moved by Christophe Cognet’s From Where They Stood, a documentary premiering in the Forum section of the Berlin International Film Festival. It uses as its base the few astonishing photographs clandestinely taken at various concentration camps by prisoners themselves, with cameras smuggled in, negatives smuggled out, and with every step of the process taken at the risk of death. Photography, in this context, becomes a fierce and courageous act of resistance. Cognet doesn’t just show us these photographs, but goes to the places from which they were taken, and with the assistance of camp historians, explores the details—some known, others only guessed at—revealed by their raw transmission of an unfathomable experience. Crucially, they also attempt to pinpoint exactly from which position in space the photographs were taken; translucent prints of the photos from the 1940s are then placed in front of the film’s camera—handled by Céline Bozon, shooting on mixed formats, including 16mm—in order to overlay the past onto the present. This present isn’t just far in time from the events of the photos, but the spaces have changed, too: Buildings in ruin or entirely removed; trees cut down, forests re-grown. The traces of what was and what happened are in a continual process of fading away. The historians have to tell us what the physical remains of the camps cannot fully express, and the photographs likewise deepen that incomplete picture of history. Cognet jumps into this discrepancy by connecting the historical facts to the physical ruins of the past through the conduit of these extraordinary—and, by the end, horrifically disturbing—photographs. The argument is not a new one—that the importance of the indexical relationship between photochemical photography and reality reached its apotheosis in what was (and, critically, was not) filmed during the Holocaust—but is given a devastating new context by celebrating the courageous audacity of prisoner-photographers. From Where They Stood shows that their resistance fights on, in its vivid and direct communication between their time and ours.

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Festival CoverageBerlinaleBerlinale 2021Christophe Cognet
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