Film Review: Destination Unknown

A Holocaust documentary that covers familiar territory but is nonetheless essential as a historical document.
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Andrew Skeet’s score is exquisite but it has no place in a documentary like Destination Unknown, which focuses its lens on 12 Holocaust survivors (all in their 80s or 90s) who recall their harrowing experiences. Their accounts do not need enhancement. Indeed, the music’s relentless presence almost trivializes the film’s content. That said, director Claire Ferguson and producer Llion Roberts (who spent 13 years pulling together these interviews) faced a daunting task. Holocaust documentaries are problematic.

On the one hand, testimonials given by survivors are essential as historical documentation, especially as their numbers dwindle. Within 10 to 20 years (maybe less) they’ll all be gone. On the other hand, Claude Lanzmann’s groundbreaking 1985 nine-hour documentary Shoah, a comprehensive work on the topic, is an impossible act to follow—not that Holocaust films have been in short supply. It’s horrible to say, but many such documentaries—along with fictionalized accounts of the era—have become generic. It’s not difficult to understand why some audiences have grown inured and tuned out.

Destination Unknown, a mixed bag, offers a series of first-person accounts interspersed with archival materials; no narrator, no scholars. The title references cattle cars carrying Jews to concentration camps and gas chambers. Few had any clue as to where they were headed. A survivor says, “Destination unknown.”

There are the familiar accounts of families ripped apart and clips of marching Nazis and black-and-white shots of emaciated bodies piled high. But there’s also original material—what a wretched way to put it—that sheds further light on the atrocities and the long shadows they cast.

Secrecy is a typical survivor response, one survivor surgically removing the tattooed numbers on his arm. Another, now confined to a wheelchair, cannot even look at photographs of her annihilated family. To this day, she continues to struggle with the big question of why she was tapped for survival and they weren’t. Another has plastered his bedroom wall (facing the bed) with photographs of his long-gone family, so that the pictures are the first thing he sees each morning and the last thing he sees each night. Perhaps Maria Kreuzman sums up what many feel with her rhetorical questions. “Who is better off? The one who dies early in the war or the one who suffers for years? And, if you don’t think I’m suffering, you’re wrong.”

Each one grapples with a cauldron of contradictory emotions—no one more disturbingly than Polish survivor Edward Mosberg, who dons a replica of his Mauthausen concentration camp outfit—a black-and-white striped cap and jacket—as if getting ready for a performance; later on the actual campsite—now an innocuous natural setting—he repeats the ritual prisoners endured as they were forced to march up steep steps carrying boulders on their shoulders. If someone stopped for a moment to rest, he’d be shot on the spot, Mosberg explains, taking a break and sitting. “Now I rest for all of them,” he says.

Some survivors recall the partisans (recounting their own experiences as partisans) and pay tribute to the extraordinary bravery of Christian neighbors who risked their lives to help Jews, hiding them in attics, basements and in one instance a cupboard. The film also includes remembrances of the survivors’ lives after the war. To judge by their homes and photos of joyous family gatherings, they’ve done well. One survivor says the life of his descendants is the triumphant answer to the “final solution.” Destination Unknown is a testimonial to resilience.

Still, I wish the film had considered more fully their post-Holocaust experiences. It’s a narrative in need of telling, though a couple of recent documentaries, Red Trees and especially Aida’s Secrets, are doing just that, the latter recounting the lives of two brothers separated as infants in a displacement camp, who then spend close to 70 years unaware of the other’s existence. Among other post-Holocaust themes, it explores identity politics, the plight of displaced persons, and the cost of living in a world shrouded in lies, omissions and secrecy.

As for theatrical films, the just-released 1945, set in post-Holocaust Hungary, is a stunning black-and-white picture that examines the culpability and dread that is aroused among local Christians, many of whom were Nazi collaborators, when two Orthodox Jews arrive in town on an unspoken mission. This movie is especially insightful in its portrayal of how the Holocaust informed the lives of Gentiles in the war’s immediate aftermath.

On balance, despite its limitations, Destination Unknown should find an audience among Holocaust fetishists, and it’s a terrific teaching tool in the classroom. Regrettably, those who need to see it—the revisionists who insist the Holocaust is overstated—will come nowhere near it.

Click here for cast and crew information.