Like Weltschmerz and Fahrvergnügen, Vergangenheitsbewältigung is one of those German words that don't quite have an equivalent in other languages: "working-off-the-past" has been a national project for the last sixty-odd years; it stands to reason that no other country has a history quite as heavy with guilt and horror to cope with. To be sure, the Holocaust has been the topic of countless films, but precious few address the legacy of the most efficient genocide in history as it confronts us today. With And Along Come Tourists, writer-director Robert Thalheim has made an understated film about a particularly sensitive place where past and present collide with unforgotten atrocities: the present-day town of Oswiecim, Poland, site of the Auschwitz extermination camp.
Alexander Fehling and Barbara Wysocka in And Along Come Tourists
And Along Come Tourists
tells the story of Sven (Alexander Fehling), a young German who chooses civil work over military service and finds himself helping out in Auschwitz, where tour buses unload a million visitors every year. Sven facilitates students' encounters with the past, does the dishes at the Youth Center, and is told to look after an old man, Krzeminski (Ryszard Ronczewski), a former Auschwitz prisoner who still lives on the camp grounds and spends his time repairing suitcases that were taken from murdered Jews. The relationship between the earnest German and the stubborn survivor is at the heart of the film, but Thalheim never once pretends that the distance between the two will be easy to bridge.
At the concentration camp's postcard stand, Sven falls in love with tour guide Ania (Barbara Wysocka). They dance at the Polish disco and take a bike ride that would be more romantic if it didn't lead past watchtowers, barbed wire, and a gate that read "Arbeit Macht Frei."
The present is also defined by globalization: a German company buys a chemical plant and invites the survivor Krezminski to speak, but the workers barely know what to ask him, and they are fascinated with his fading prisoner tattoo. When the company unveils yet another monument, Krezminski is called again, for a photo op and a speech that's cut short when the venture capitalists begin to suspect that it "lacks impact." "If they want impact," Krezminski fumes, "let them watch Schindler's List!"
Without ever resorting to preachiness, Thalheim, who was a Zivi
at Auschwitz himself, offers incisive insights into the thorny contradictions and treacherous cross-currents of guilt and memory that turn any kind of exploration of the overbearing past into a minefield. During his stay, Sven finds out that the questions far outnumber the answers.
Certainly, it's a good thing that people -- tourists -- come to visit Auschwitz, but what does it mean that the site of the most unspeakable horrors now resembles a theme park? How can you engage with the past when remaining survivors are slowly but surely disappearing and monuments with a preconceived "impact" are all that remains? Thalheim's wise and moving film shows that the project of Vergangenheitsbewältigung is both more vital and more difficult than any prepackaged answer suggests -- in Germany, in Poland, and anywhere else people hope to never forget.
And Along Come Tourists does not have distribution in the U.S. yet. The film screened at the Kino! 2007 series at the Museum of Modern Art on November 1 and 4, 2007.