After visiting Auschwitz in 2003, Llion Roberts was so affected by his experiences that he felt compelled to record the stories of those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust. Over the next few years he recorded over 400 hours of interviews, teamed up with director Claire Ferguson, and used the personal experiences to create the narrative for his latest documentary Destination Unknown.
As to be expected, there are many moments of indescribable horror here. Eddie Weinstein was one of only 67 people to escape the extermination camp at Treblinka – around 850,000 were killed there – and his description of crying toddlers being routinely executed and thrown in pits is barely possible to comprehend. The forced labour camp at Plaszow, the basis for Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, features heavily. Helen Sternlicht was chosen to be Commandant Amon Goeth’s personal assistant. Her frank portrayal of Goeth – for reference, played by Ralph Fiennes in the 1993 movie – is simply staggering; black and white stills of the man who she describes as ‘born rotten’ standing topless at his breakfast table, shorts pulled up around his giant stomach while randomly shooting prisoners chill to the bone. Only the accounts of Schindler and his right-hand man Mietek Pemper – also interviewed here – allow the audience any element of comfort in humanity.
With no narrator and eleven people’s stories to be told in less than an hour and twenty minutes, attempting to digest so many accounts while dealing with the inevitable emotional impact can at times feel a little overwhelming. Excellent editing does its best to remind us of the interviewee’s names but endeavouring to keep up with the overlapping stories can sometimes feel a little bewildering.
That said, Ferguson and Roberts have done a fine job in bringing together as many different angles to survivors’ tales as possible. As well as those interned in the camps, they include Partisan fighter Frank Blaichman, and Eli Zborowski, who spent the remaining days of the war in hiding. These extra dimensions lend Destination Unknown a rounded historic appreciation of the Holocaust, rarely seen in similar documentaries. The result is incredibly and intentionally personal, bringing a stark and sobering testimony to the victims, detailing their emotional responses, ranging from denial, anger and sorrow, to disbelief.
A welcome element of Destination Unknown is the inclusion of post-war stories, although seldomly are they explored in depth. It’s easy to forget that many who survived the horrors of the camps, once liberated, were left with nothing; their homes possessed, their friends and families killed, their assets stripped, their psychological state unimaginable. There were few happy endings; Marsha Kreuzman begged the liberating Russian soldiers at Mauthausen to kill her, Stanley Glogover spent 18 months sleeping on park benches while travelling around Europe looking for anyone with the same surname. Not one can talk about the 70 year-old events without breaking down in tears, many of their surviving family and friends took their own life through depression and almost all still wake every night with nightmares. If the events of the Holocaust are barely imaginable to anyone who didn’t live through them, then being faced with attempting to rebuild a life after such abject horror is as equally inconceivable. Given the short running time, an extra fifteen minutes exploring these post-war stories in a little more detail would have added a rarely studied aspect of their lives.
Destination Unknown was never going to be an easy watch and some of the stories and imagery are almost implausible to those of us lucky enough never to have experienced it. Roberts has produced an important and sympathetic film which concentrates on the individual and not the statistics, while thankfully including tales of extraordinary kindness and beautiful humanity to balance out the wretched inhumanity of the Nazis. As Eddie Weinstein says towards the end: ‘My grandchildren are my answer to Hitler’s Final Solution.’
Dir: Claire Ferguson
Scr: Jonathan Key
Cast: Ed Mosberg, Eddie Weinstein, Regina Lewis, Victor Lewis, Helen Sternlicht, Marsha Kreuzman, Roman Ferber, Frank Blaichman, Stanley Glogover, Eli Zborowski
Prd: Llion Roberts
Music: Andrew Skeet
Run Time: 78 Minutes
Destination Unknown is out in cinemas now.