In a world 70 years removed from the horrors of the Holocaust, there is a sense that the abundance of information accessible now has somewhat lessened the meaning of its tragedy in the modern world. Everything you could wish to know is available only a few short clicks away. With the history of the world chopped up and scattered into an ever increasing ocean of data, its context and humanity can sometimes be lost, several leagues within. So how do you effectively portray the pain, suffering and inhumanity of an event that occurred several decades ago?
It’s a conundrum that certainly must have faced director Claire Ferguson before formulating her approach to Destination Unknown. The subsequent choices made were simple and chillingly effective, relying on first-hand accounts of survivors from Nazi concentration camps, recalling the nightmares that will never release them from its grasp. Over a 14 year period producer Llion Roberts studiously interviewed Holocaust survivors, recording their unique and harrowing experiences on film. The aim was not only to serve as a keen reminder of the atrocities they suffered but to understand how they found a way to forge a life beyond the concentration camps.
The twelve voices of the survivors evoke their personal journeys through hell, at times assisted by remarkable footage, some of which has never been seen before. Ferguson and Roberts also managed to secure something of a coup by interviewing Mietek Pemper, before he passed away in 2011. Himself a holocaust survivor, Mietek worked alongside and assisted Oskar Schindler in curating the list that led to the rescue of over a thousand Jewish lives, some of whom appear in the film to reveal their point-of-view. Previously, he had mostly been reluctant to speak on film about his experiences, so it is quite a special moment to hear a first-hand account of how the list came into being.
Ferguson’s vast experience as an editor comes to the fore as she effortlessly weaves a powerful narrative across each of their stories. These men and women continue to be haunted by the atrocities that occurred within the camps, replaying decisions that they believe could have led to different outcomes for their families. They each confront their pasts in different ways, be it burying the memories deep within their psyches, or, as in the case of Ed Mosberg, returning to the Mauthausen camp every year on Holocaust Memorial Day to confront his demons.
If there is one small gripe with the film it is that the score does unnecessarily continue to encourage a specific emotional reaction, which doesn’t feel needed given how powerful the survivor’s words are by themselves. That said, trying to create a cinematic narrative out of a succession of talking heads is far from an easy task. Given the age of the remaining Holocaust survivors, this may be one of the last times we are privileged enough to hear these stories directly from them, which gives the film an added edge of historical potency. Be it the savagery that occurred at Guantánamo Bay, or our fears about the growing rise of Far Right Fascism, Destination Unknown serves as a timely reminder of a period we dare not return to.