• GNCR Award


Christophe Cognet

Christophe Cognet
« Seeing as these men and women worked so hard to share these images, we have to watch them. » Written in white on a black screen at the beginning of the film, this imperative, as much artistic as ethical, has been Christophe Cognet’s guiding principle for nigh on 20 years with regards to the clandestine images produced in Nazi camps. Now, From Where we Stood emerges as the greatest achievement of this stubborn undertaking. The body of this research is made up of photographs taken by men and women in five concentration camps, risking their lives in the process. The filmmaker/historian’s ambition is both simple and staggering: from the starting point of fragments of film saved from hell, he goes back to the act of taking a photograph, to the precise time and place each shot was taken. From camp to camp two stages of enquiry are carried out of with such rare power, both in terms of evocation and portrayal, and in the sharing of this act in the present time. The first stage: to describe the photos, as meticulously as possible, then to extract as much information and hypotheses from them as possible in terms of the context of the act of madness of which they provide proof. With the negatives in hand, the filmmaker and his faithful allies, historians and interpreters, share their knowledge and questions. Second stage: armed with knowledge, the photos are transferred to large glass plates, then, roaming through what remains of the camp, they try to pinpoint the exact site where the photo was taken and, in a determined, fumbling way, attempt to override the passage of time, lest we forget, and the traces of the past stuck in these imaged. There is no voiceover to provide the viewer with the comfort of established expertise. A feverish passion combined with the greatest reserve guides him, step by step, to the heart of the shadows, to the edge of the mad desire to see.
(Cyril Neyrat)

Interview with Christophe Cognet

Following Parce que j’étais peintre (2013), a film about the drawing and painting practiced covertly in the Nazi camps, A pas aveugles looks at the photographs taken in these same camps under the same clandestine and therefore extremely dangerous conditions. What changes, from one medium to another, in terms of the challenges of historical investigation and the way of conducting it ?

I thought Parce que j’étais peintre would be the last film I would devote to clandestine images of Nazi camps. I was familiar with most of the photographs this film concerns, having come across them during my research. I had considered including them then, but something held me back. Then I went to the presentation of the issue of the Ligne de risque review devoted to Leïb Rochman’s book, À pas aveugles de par le monde. Something happened there: I knew that many of these photographs had been taken blindly, without a real aim. The steps in the book’s title suggested the idea of ​​a moving body. I realized that photography and drawing had different relationships to the gaze and the body: to draw a picture, you need to have looked at the being or the thing represented, but you don’t need to be in its presence: it can be done from memory, in the evening, in the blocks for example, as was the case for many works produced in the camps. Whereas to take a photo, you have to be physically present. You don’t have to look at what you are photographing, but you have to be in front of it, in its presence, and share in a time and space. A photograph is the trace of a meeting. I told myself that here was material for a new film which would consist of searching for these photographic acts, these shots, these “punches”, each with its own story, and dramaturgy. Bodies, faces, gaze, space, duration, time, encounter, dramaturgy, point of view: here was the very essence of cinema.

The investigation is developed from camp to camp and applies the same method at each stage: firstly, a discussion on the photographs with specialists, and secondly, in the remains of the camp, in search of the precise spot where the photo was taken. Can you tell us how the film came about, and how this method was developed?
I wanted to consider these photographs as acts as much as images, where there’s always a phase of looking, and a phase of exploration, which complement and dialogue with each other. But from one series to another, the order is not always the same. Sometimes we start by investigating the sites, sometimes by looking at the images, sometimes we go from one to the other. And there is always a third important step: the story, however enigmatic, of the journey of the authors of these images. I imagined each part of the film as a variation on the same motifs, drawing inspiration from the art of baroque composition. The day before filming, I played the whole of my team the “Ciaconna” of Partita N ° 2 by JS Bach, which composes more than sixty variations, from a basso continuo consisting of four notes. This is also what guided us during the editing: the accumulation effect of these variations, the genius of the construction of the piece, the accuracy of the melodies and the tempos, the play of correspondence and differences, the obstinate repetition of the basso continuo, as if moving with an infinite energy, provide the purest and most varied emotions. Here, expressiveness and sentimentality could act as a veil, a primer, preventing us from reaching a higher and more just stage of true emotion.

The process of photographic renewal is central to your approach. How did the idea come to you, what needs did it answer, and what did you consider its powers to be?

It is a question of the physical trace: the analogue process is an imprint, a moulding. Like I said, it is a material trace of a meeting. This gives it a unique power to consider presence and absence, and above all to offer the possibility of a perception, a vision of what was, of the conditions of this meeting: these photographs are the opportunity to re-present in our eyes the people and places that are photographed. This is what moves me and interests me at this point, I believe, in these images: they carry within them as much the images of the subjects they represent as the marks of the acts which produced them and the points of view of their authors.

Last year, you published Éclats (Editions du Seuil), an important book which acts as the film’s counterpart, and presents, as writing obliges, a much more detailed version of the historical investigation of the photographs. The book and film together make up a fascinating and rare diptych. Why was it important for you to produce both? How did one relate to the other ?
The book was written during the two years needed to prepare the film. I tried to push what writing could do, faced with these photographs on the one hand, and what cinema could do, without one being the scenario of the other, or its extension, its illustration. In the book, I tried to describe each photograph to the point of its invisibility: writing about images is an extraordinary exercise in understanding their powers, and what escapes us in them. I have also been able to retrace, as far as possible, the paths of their authors and those who have taken care of them, and also those who appear in them in the cases where it has been possible to identify them. This is in the form of praise, in the sense used by Pierre Michon to qualify his books: a form of prayer.

The quality of silence is striking, in particular via the use of texts on cardboard. It is a silence to which the word, abundant, ceaselessly returns, as if reined in by a need for modesty, tact, precaution. How did you conceive and work on this relationship between silence and speech and, more generally, the sound dimension of your film ?
I didn’t want the speech to be professorial, “knowing” and overhanging; but rather speech that is worried, that seeks, that dialogues, in action, fragile, uncertain, that tries hypotheses and takes them up again. In short, something alive in the face of these mountains, these oceans of dead people. It wasn’t easy to ask this of historians, who are used to being put in the position of bearers of truth. We see in the film that some of them resist somewhat. But it was possible because I had written the book Éclats, and because in a way, I knew these photographs better than they did. A dialogue was possible, between me with my long association with these images, and them with their knowledge of the camps, of the Shoah. In any case, I am convinced – from my experience anyway – that when confronted with images, words end up becoming exhausted: there is always something in an image that resists language, and that is what gives it its worth. In parallel, the idea was for the cards to be inscribed in the very matter of the film, that they should state facts, in silence, or rather in the sounds of the scenes surrounding them. The silence – the atmosphere of the sites – is obviously the condition for a form of contemplation, but it is also a kind of point of contact, out of time: the camps were very noisy, but the prisoners also heard birds, the wind, and the rustling of the foliage—testimonies of this kind abound.

The physical, bodily dimension of the investigation is also striking. Firstly, through your presence on screen, whether in the places where the images are kept or walking through the remains of the camps. Secondly, by the choice, most often, of a hand-held camera. Can you explain these choices? Could you tell us about your collaboration with Céline Bozon, your director of photography ?

This research had to be done on a human scale, with a body, bodies, that move around, just as the photographers did. So I play a character who leads the investigation, who is also a kind of passeur, inviting the spectator to join us. For the same reasons, a large part of the shots had to be filmed on the shoulder: unlike the steadycam, which produces a sort of bodiless, ghostly look, the shoulder achieves the physical displacement of the gaze. I had seen and admired the work of Céline Bozon. Luckily, she agreed to make the film, and was available on the shooting dates that were chosen to correspond with the seasons in which the images had been taken. During the shooting, everything took place in a kind of trance. I am not exaggerating when I say that we were driven by a paradoxical, almost sacred vital energy: we were doing it in the name of the dead, with great admiration and respect for these women and men who took clandestine images. As we took images in their footsteps, our admiration for them became all the greater.

In Éclats, you touch several times on the opaque nature of these photographs, and the need to approach them with fear and trembling. You write that one risks, when faced with these images, finding oneself “caught” in the act of “captioning”. Can you elaborate on this point?
These are Rivette’s words, from the famous article on the tracking shot of Pontecorvo’s film, where he says – I quote from memory – that death in cinema can only be approached with fear and trembling. The same thing naturally applies in photography. We are so moved by these images from the camps that we apply a whole series of filters and preconceptions to them which prevent us from really looking at them, from discovering what they show and what they fail to show. I tried to look at them to the point of their invisibility, without replacing what I didn’t see by what I would have liked to see, or by what historical knowledge teaches me should be there: for me, that’s called being caught in the act of captioning. It’s the same thing when we walk through the sites: an exterior shell, a bit of rust on the barbed wire, an uncertain shape in the thickness of the photographic grain, or a fleeting silhouette in the background, can easily beckon to us. There is a sense of vertigo to all these latent signs that can arouse in us a kind of tragic melancholy that would make us behave like an inspired poet, a serious aesthete or a concerned philosopher. I believe that these places find it difficult to bear such kinds of self-centred and proud poses. The temptation comes quickly, in spite of oneself: it is a protection against the emptiness and the violence of these places and the events that happened there. I tried as best I could to venture into these landscapes, these places, to contemplate these images, “without ever making use of them”.

Interview by Cyril Neyrat

  • GNCR Award

Technical sheet

France / 2021 / 110’

Original Version : German, French, Polish.
Subtitles : German, English, French.
Script : Christophe Cognet.
Photography : Céline Bozon.
Editing : Catherine Zins.
Sound : Nathalie Vidal, Marc Parisotto.
Production : Raphaël Pillosio (L’atelier documentaire).
Distribution : MK2.
Filmography : Sept mille années, 2017. Parce que j’étais peintre, 2014. Les anneaux du serpent, 2008. Quand nos yeux sont fermés, 2006. L’atelier de Boris, 2004. Les sentiers de Fred, 2001. L’affaire Dominici par Orson Welles, 2000. Gongonbili, de l’autre côté de la colline, 1997.