Documentary Review: Holocaust photographers capture furtive images of “the final solution” “From Where They Stood (À pas aveugles)”

As World War II ground to its brutal conclusion, Germans and their occupied country collaborators hastily burned, blew up and buried as much of the evidence of “The Final Solution,” their mass internment and murder of European Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Slavic POWs and other “undesirables.

But the evidence of Nazi crimes against humanity lived on. Survivors in liberated and not-yet-destroyed camps bore witness. Some German records survived in the chaos. And after a hard rain at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau, Ravensbruk and other camps, you can still see the white fragments of bones, the product of the mass murder hiding crematoria, expelled from the soil where they were buried.

The rarest direct proof of what happened, what the camps looked like during the war, filled with inmates in the middle of civilization’s worst crime, are photographs taken by those trapped in what we’d later label The Holocaust.

Christophe Cognet’s “From Where They Stood” celebrates the six photographers who found a camera and found a way to get pictures in 1943-44, hide the celluloid and save it for posterity, not just “evidence” but grim, grainy reminders of the nuts and bolts operation of these murder factories and what those enslaved there went through.

The pictures are a frame or two here, a couple of others there, some of them blown up for various memorials or museums at the site of the death camps. Furtively-snapped with cameras either from the camp’s photographic department, or purloined from the storage house nicknamed “Canada” in one camp — where the final possessions of Jews and others interred there were stashed — every photo was dearly bought under the riskiest of conditions. Every photo tells a story, not just of the subject, but of how hard it was to get, and how brave the photographer had to be to take it.

That’s what Cognet’s film is about. He visits archives, interviews experts and blows up negatives that he can then take to the site and figure out how, when and exactly where the shots were obtained.

One photographer smuggled images, and even samples of human skin that the German Army’s S.S. had preserved in grisly in-camp museums, “traces of S.S. crimes,” out. Another wrapped his camera in a newspaper, taking secret snaps with a primitive Brownie style camera, carefully avoiding detection by the guard towers.

Another got inside a gas chamber and photographed out a window, detailed a field covered with bodies to be burned. Cognet and the experts (and translators) he takes with him on camp sites determine the time of day, the season of the year, the location of this shot or that one, with a magnifying glass, a lot of deductive reasoning and a little speculation.

That makes for an unusually forensic “Zapruder Film” take on a subject that is most often documented via gripping, wrenching interviews with the ever-shrinking pool of aged survivors.

This or that shot was later “retouched” to erase inmates lying on the fenced lawn in front of a crematorium, numb to the death all around them,” or to add definition to the blurred faces of nude women stripping to enter “the showers.”

Portraits of “human guinea pigs” showing us their injuries are mixed with simple looks inside an infirmary, a glance at emaciated prisoners, even of the photographers themselves “taking ownership of their image” in the face of this dehumanizing horror, are seen and deconstructed.

But for all the power of its subject and the rarity of its images, Cognet has made a dry and almost defiantly artless movie about these images and their provenance.

He uses no music, makes no effort to create striking compositions and even the editing of the sometimes hand-held explorations and zoom-ins on images is done without dissolves, that original motion picture “special effect.”

If he wants to show a location as it is now, with ruins or recreated buildings, juxtaposed with what the photographer saw back then, he shoots through a blown-up negative to physically lay one image over the other. He scrambles through overgrown, unrestored sites (Mittelbau-Dora) to try and mimic the shot the often long-dead photographer framed up, never daring to manipulate emotions with music or words or emotional reactions to what was captured, at the greatest possible risk, almost 80 years ago.

That makes for a documentary that is grimly clinical, as if the viewer, like the filmmaker, is holding that blow-up transparency at arm’s length over a scene to recreate it and imagine the horror that went on there.

“From Where They Stood” lacks the pathos or the damning condemnation of the best Holocaust documentaries or of the Spanish drama about one such in-camp witness, “The Photographer of Mauthausen.” It plays like a piece of scholarship and forensic evidence for the next “Holocaust Denier” trial.

Yes, this happened. Here are the photographs confirming survivor testimony and validating the production design of the many cinematic treatments. And here are the stories of those who took the photos, half a dozen men and women, risking their lives to capture images that would prove what happened to them, even if they didn’t survive.

Rating: unrated

Cast: Christophe Cognet, Pamela Castillo Feuchtman, Harry Stein, Corinne Halter, Tal Bruttman and Albert Knoll.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Christophe Cognet. A Greenwich Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:55

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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